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Stanton Harcourt – Turn 4

STANTON RELAXED BACK against the pillows, the moment's panic fading. What had he to fear from Captain Greene, after all? He was an innocent man, and had no need to entertain thoughts of escape. He picked up the bowl of gruel and resumed his breakfast, slowly regathering his wits about him. How much could he safely tell the Watch Captain? Probably not those parts of the affair which touched on Greene's master Heitman Kirkland, if Clumps was right.

The sun was coming in through the high window, forming a rectangular patch of brightness at the foot of the bed. Birds could be heard outside. Stanton realised that this was his first visit to the hospital - as a patient. Up till now his adult life had been marked by the rudest of health. The odd shipboard ailment, of course, but nothing serious. Rangar had always been the safest of places to him. What had happened to change it? Surely it could not just be that some plot of Rory's had caught up with him: there must be more to the tale than that. Could it truly be that, as Toma seemed to be suggesting, some vast powerful conspiracy had existed here for many years, and he had only now by chance become aware of it? Surely not - that beggared belief. How unaware could a man be about his own city? But Rangar was a big place - and, again, if Toma was right, there must be many men and women who devoted themselves to covering up the rottenness and scheming, to presenting a fair face to the world. Why, some of his acquaintances might be among them! If the plot concerned the governance of the realm, then surely the REC could not be immune. It might be that one - or more! - of the Council members was a conspirator. And what had happened to Lal Pressman?

Stanton's troubled reverie was interrupted by a peremptory knock on the door. Without waiting for a response it was opened, and the shaven-headed figure of Captain Greene entered the room. His appearance was no different now to when he had interviewed Stanton after the burglary - it seemed like years ago, rather than days! - but somehow a miasma of subterfuge seemed to envelop him, to the explorer's haggard eyes.

Greene stood at the foot of the bed, his plumed hat under one arm, a short ivory rod tucked under the other, and silently inspected his suspect. He had closed the door behind him, but Stanton had heard the sound of booted feet from without and guessed there were guards - Watchers - outside the door.

Greene smiled mirthlessly. 'Well, Master Harcourt. We meet again - but what a sad change in your fortunes! No longer the victim of crime, but its committer now - and the most heinous crime of all, life-taking.'

Stanton chilled at the dispassion in the man's voice. One might expect that, one of his colleagues having died violently, he would be upset or angry, but no: it was as though the dead Watcher were of no importance beyond that of a pawn. 'Life-taking, yes, Captain, but that only inadvertently and in self-defence. I had no idea the man was a Watcher, and I only struck out after he had landed me a blow I was lucky to survive.' He indicated his bandaged head.

Captain Greene turned sideways, towards the window, gazing upwards. His expression was unreadable. When his voice came it was hollow. 'You and I both know, Master Harcourt, that Briar's death is not the reason I am here, nor is it the most serious of the crimes of which you are held responsible.'

Stanton, despite his calm demeanour, tensed inside. What was Greene saying?

'You are in over your head, Harcourt, and I am offering you a lifeline out. If you ever want that title of Equester - yes, we know all about that! - indeed, if you wish to return to your life of exploratory {he pronounced the word with some scorn, as though it were the pastime of boys}, indeed, if you wish to be sure you retain a life at all - you will cooperate with me now, and reveal all that you know of your brother's activities and of his confederates.'

Dumbfounded, Stanton could do no more than stare at his menacing interlocutor.

'When, and where, did you first meet Toma Shore?'

'Wh-who is that?', Stanton asked, feebly.

'Come, come, Master Harcourt, I can make this more difficult for you if you like, but I don't see how I can make it easier.' He stepped up beside the bed and without warning lashed out at Stanton's head with the ivory cane, slashing across the bandages. A fearsome burning pain jolted through Stanton's skull and down his spine, and he collapsed sideways, retching up the thin gruel of the morning.

'Now, that first one was a test. I know perfectly well that she attended one of your lectures and contacted you afterwards. Our agent was in the room and observed. So, here is another question: where did she go after the affair in Union Square?'

'I saw nothing - I was unconscious!' croaked Stanton.

With lightning savagery Captain Greene slashed at Stanton's head again, and although he was able to raise his hand to deflect some of the impact he still received enough of the blow to momentarily blacken his vision. 'Don't try to play games with me, Harcourt! I learnt from a better master than you!'

There was a knock at the door, accompanied by a shuffling and muttering sound. Greene calmly strolled back to the foot of the bed as a tall, slim woman in middle years entered the room. 'Ah, Hierarch, I was just about to summon you: the patient seems to have taken a nasty turn.'

The Hierarch Chirurge looked appraisingly at Greene. 'I think perhaps it is time you were on your way, Captain.' Through the open door Stanton could hear his nurse arguing with another man: a Watcher?

'Yes, I think I have done all I wish to this morning. Thank you for your help, Master Harcourt. If you find your memory clears up at all on those difficult points, you can always find me at the City Watchouse.' He paused in the doorway. 'I shall expect a visit from you in the next three days.'

The Medarch Chirurge watched Greene and his Watchers leave, standing tight-lipped, hands on hips, while the nurse tended to Stanton. 'Master Harcourt, I apologise for that intrusion - I will be making a complaint about Captain Greene's conduct to his superiors, of that you may be sure. I left strict instruction that he was not to be allowed to interrogate you without one of my staff present. We do not seek to interfere with the course of justice, so they should not interfere with the course of medical care!'

She turned back to Stanton, now smiling slightly. 'Well, Etterick here tells me you have been making a strong recovery up till now: I anticipate allowing you to return home in the morning. You have people who will look after you there?'

Stanton nodded slightly, wincing, thinking of his few servants at Basin Place. They should be able to cope.

'Good. I would not try anything too exerting - such as travel - for a few days, though.' She turned on her heel and left the room.

The nurse - Etterick - gave Stanton a sympathetic glance. 'We'll have to tell the Watch when we release you, you know that?'

IT SEEMED THAT Captain Greene's blows had done no lasting harm, and Stanton found his health continuing to improve during the afternoon. Etterick had left his door ajar, so that he could hear the bustling of the hospital as it went about its myriad tasks: trolleys being pushed back and forth, patients hobbling up and down the corridor, visitors nervously tendering flowers and fruit. Writing materials having been brought, Stanton carefully wrote his three notes, and entrusted them to his nurse to despatch. With any luck the Royal Chamberlain would look upon his case with sympathy, not linking the King's guest who had been attacked with the savage madman who had slain a Watcher.

After the evening meal - a thin stew, rather unpalatable but doubtless wonderfully nourishing - Stanton decided to test his strength by paying a visit to Wittenham Clumps. He felt a trifle unsteady at first, but with the aid of a walking-stick that Etterick had thoughtfully left at the end of the bed he was able to totter out into the corridor.

A cleaner was washing down a set of stone flags, leading up to who knew where, and Stanton asked her where Master Clumps might be found.

'Clumps? Is he that bald, elderly gentleman? Why, he's down in the Queen Mother ward, I think, sir.'

Thanking her Stanton pressed on down the corridor, peering at the signs displayed above each door. It seemed he had been lucky to have a private room: lucky, or else it was his notoriety had led to the Watch demanding it for him. Here was a room full of sickly children, mosquito nets drawn around their beds: here another of expectant mothers. He had never had cause to wonder how the hospital was funded, assuming vaguely that its resources were drawn from some central Church account: but the expense must be tremendous, and this was only one institution, albeit the biggest. Ah, here was a tremendous full-length marble statue of the late Queen Mother: this must be it.

The room was large and airy, and the four beds in it were unoccupied, two rumpled, the others still freshly starched and evidently unused. A double door opened onto a veranda, and it was here that Stanton found his friend, vigorously pushing dominoes around with a man of the same sort of age, one of whose legs was heavily splinted and stuck out stiffly.

'Ah, Harcourt, good to see you up and about! I understand you had a run-in with our mutual friend this morning!'

'Yes, that's right...' Stanton touched his bandages. 'I was hoping to talk to you about that.'

'Of course! Oh, this is Walter Merrick, coal chandler by trade - had a slip down a shaft, eh? Walter, this is my dear friend Stanton Harcourt, another Explorator.'

'Pleased to make your acquaintance, sir!' Merrick had a firm, dry handshake. 'Any friend of Master Clumps is a friend of mine!'

Stanton was touched by this unlooked-for amiability. 'Why, thank you, sir, and the same is true for me.'

'Drag up a seat, lad - don't worry about Walter, you can speak in front of him. Matter of fact I've told him a bit about your scrape already.'

Drawing a bamboo rocker forward, Stanton wondered for a moment whether his friend had been wise. But Merrick's face was honest-looking and open, and Clumps's judgement of people was usually sound.

Crickets were buzzing in the dying sunlight - what a change from the frost of last week! - as Stanton settled into the chair. 'Clumps, I've decided to take your advice, and return to the country. I hope that some of the answers I've been seeking will be found there.'

'Good fellow! It'll get you out from under Greene's eye, as well. But remember you'll be close to the Heitman there: what if he takes it into his mind to visit his own estates?'

'Heitman Kirkland, is this?' Merrick inquired.

'Aye, his land borders mine, on the Athricol road. Something's puzzling me, though, Clumps: Greene knows about Rory, and about the girl I met, and he knows I know more than I've yet told him, but he didn't take me into custody: he just said I should call on him at the Watchhouse in the next three days. What makes him think I'll cooperate?'

Clumps frowned. 'Beats me! This morning he asked me a load of stuff about the REC Council, and about Pressman: especially how he got on with Zway. What d'you make of that?'

'Howard Zway? Could he be their man?'

Stanton frowned at Merrick's intervention. How much had Wittenham told him? 'Possibly... I think it's idle to speculate about that at the moment. I know very little about all that, Wittenham: is there a story?'

'Well, they'd argued at several of the last meetings, actually. Zway was all for cancelling the expedition, you know - of course, this was before your lectures - because he thought the Way's Touring Company would compromise it in some way - Medarchs interfering with the Explorators, that sort of thing. You know how devout Lal is, he wouldn't hear of it. Paravane smoothed things over, though, drew up a contract which the Hierarch Trey signed, saying they wouldn't cause trouble... you know the sort of thing. That didn't stop Zway, though: he's just a publicity-seeker, to my mind, You know we've appointed Philip Graveside to the Council now, as Press Officer?' Clumps looked sharply at his friend.

'Graveside?' A vague memory of a young man with a dark beard surfaced in Stanton's mind. 'Isn't he a bit inexperienced? Has he even been to Galiche yet?'

'Once, but before the mast, you know. I spoke for you to be co-opted instead, but the tide was the other way... Graveside is great friends with the news-sheet editors, he's made it his business, and it seemed to us we needed someone batting for us against Zway's maunderings.'

Stanton was not sure if he was relieved or disappointed that his involuntary candidacy had not been taken up. Walter Merrick piped up again. 'How different all this is from the coal business! We have dirty tricks, of course - one chandler against another - but none of this intriguery. Matter of fact, we've got trouble with a gang of smugglers at the moment, bringing in Levacan coal at below the tariff.' He sighed. 'I think I may end up having to do a deal with them: the King's not going to get any taxes from me if I go out of business, is he! Man named Elzevir Shore runs the racket, I understand, out of the Roaring Donkey.'


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