The Dog of Pel
The cold was coming. Jamie Pel nailed new shingles onto the roof of his small house. He had chores to finish before the weather turned, and it suited him to be up here alone. The local girl, his last unofficial liaison, had slammed out of the house last night after a final volley of recriminations. The peace was welcome.
Several years before, he’d deliberately chosen a dwelling without near neighbors in a remote corner of Pel Demesne. The locals steered brickies and begging waifs away, and in return, he listened to their problems and did what he could. What was possible. He had no Power, could not grant what he did not have, no matter what some people believed. He’d made that plain at the beginning, although Jenifer had obviously not listened. Of everything she’d said, her assumption that he’d lied to get her into his bed had made him angriest.
He finished a row of shingles and sat on the roof ridge for a rest. From there he had a clear view to the Reavie Mountains in the east. This far from the demesne border the Boundary was a faint haze, almost invisible. Autumn colors had started in the trees: scarlet, orange, and gold. Some leaves had dropped, and the cool scent of fall was in the air. This wasn’t home, but it was beautiful.
He watched a hawk soar and tilt its wings, turning his head to follow the bird as it searched for prey. The hawk floated over the path to the house and then veered away, its smooth flight disturbed by an intruder. Jamie shaded his eyes. If it was Jenifer, returning to renew their argument, no matter how loud she yelled or what missiles she flung at his head, he couldn’t do what she wanted. He was tired of saying it.
But it wasn’t Jenifer.
Three people were coming up the path, a tall man in the lead, wearing a heavy hunting jacket with a scarf of green and brown. Pel colors. Jamie blinked. His uncle, the Magne of Pel, walked up the path as if he were any prosperous tenant visiting a neighbor and not the lord of the entire demesne. Two bodyguards dressed in Pel day livery, their weapons invisible, followed him. The second guard had a small sack slung at his belt.
Jamie slid down the roof to the top of the ladder.
“We’re fine.” His uncle called up, answering the unspoken question. “Alexandra’s entertaining guests at Pel House. Her friends, not mine. I came to ask a favor. Can you leave that?”
“Two more rows, fifteen minutes and I’ll be done here.” The bodyguards looked awed. Anyone else in the demesne, except his cousin Alexandra, would have leaped down the ladder immediately. But the Magne smiled and said, “I’ll wait for you inside.”
Jamie heard his steps cross the small porch. One of the bodyguards moved out of Jamie’s sight to the back of the house while the other watched the path.
Jamie nailed in the rows, his mind far away from his hands. The Magne had suggested this house when Jamie had explained what he wanted, but he hadn’t been here in years. Whatever favor he wanted must be serious and—if he hadn’t publicly summoned Jamie to Pel House—private, although not secret. If he walked up from the village, he must have traveled there by tram; he had undoubtedly been seen. Jamie gathered his tools, climbed down the ladder, and stacked the unused shingles. Three Powers knew when he’d get back to this.
The Magne had put the kettle to boil on the Power plate in the small kitchen. When Jamie entered, he was standing by the Power tap, his hand on the shielding, below the four-by-four square symbol of old Gallia placed by the original builder. Of the sixteen demesnes, twelve remained, but Jamie had never gotten around to covering up the bottom row. The Portall, guardians of the Boundaries, would not approve, but his uncle didn’t seem to notice. The Magne had removed his jacket. His cream wool shirt was finely made. You might, if you didn’t know, take him for a wealthy man of late middle age, perhaps a retired tenant or brickie worker who had done well. Until he turned around and you saw the Power-implanted symbol of the Magne, the imblem, centered on his chest where the shirt’s cut circle displayed it. There was the imblem of Pel Demesne: the profile of a standing dog. There was no doubt what you were facing, then.
“Nice clean tap. You have a good deal in reserve.” The Magne pulled his hand away.
Jamie took his word for it. He’d never felt more than a faint and distant vibration when he touched the tap. Of course, he wasn’t supposed to. “I don’t use much. Cooking, hot water, and now that it’s getting cooler, a bit of heat in the early morning. I could use a Power brick instead.” As Jenifer had pointed out the previous night.
The Magne frowned. “You’re not a brickie, James, no matter how little Power you use. You are a demesne heir. You will have a full tap because your status demands it.”
Jamie had always been curious about the Power, but his uncle avoided discussing it. Alexandra swore he never talked to her either, but she had shrugged it off, claiming she had years ahead of her to learn. Jamie wasn’t sure his cousin was telling the truth. The Magne was generally reasonable, even indulgent, to his heirs. But it was true there were things he would not discuss, and he could snap your head off for asking. Cautiously, Jamie asked, “Can a Power tap be moved?”
The Magne frowned again. “What’s this? Are you leaving this house?” He waved his hand around the small space. “I thought it was what you wanted.”
“No, I’m not leaving. Can a tap be moved?”
The Magne hesitated for so long Jamie was sure he wouldn’t answer. Finally, he said, “It’s best if, assuming a tap is unused, I release it and pull another tap at the new location.” He added, even more reluctantly, “Power isn’t unlimited, you know. A tap used here means less somewhere else.” He rubbed his hand over his imblem and frowned.
Jamie drew a breath. “Most people don’t know that, sir. They think your decisions are arbitrary.”
The Magne snorted. “Yes. Or motivated by my greed for money. Who’s been after you to give up this tap?”
No one had ever accused the Magne of stupidity. Jamie sighed. “Jenifer Pellow. She wants a full tap for Pellow farm. I…I made it plain at the beginning: I had no special favors to grant, no Power, but she thought she could wheedle a tap out of me. She was here because I’m one of the Thirty-Six, for no other reason.”
The Magne shrugged. “So? What does it matter?”
Jamie said, stubbornly, “It matters to me.” He didn’t want to contradict his uncle, but he said, “I prefer a woman who’s interested in me, not in what she thinks I can give her or her family.”
The Magne said, “I think you’ll find, as you get older, it pays to be straightforward in these matters.”
Jamie shook his head. “I was. She didn’t believe me.”
“Yes, sometimes they don’t,” his uncle said. “I’ve turned Ewan Pellow down twice now; his farm can’t support the price of a full tap. This was probably her own idea, not her father’s. Often young women think they can bend reality to their whims. The older ones are more practical.”
The Magne, secure with his two heirs, hadn’t had a formal Consort for years. A series of pretty widows occupied a private apartment in Pel House and were assured of a generous payment on their departure. Jamie found it a bit cold-blooded, but he was thankful his uncle avoided the outrageous excesses of several of the previous Magnes. They made for lively reading in the histories but not much else. He was also grateful Jenifer Pellow was too young to interest his uncle.
The Magne said, “You shouldn’t live as a hermit. There are other pretty girls who’d be happy up here.”
“Being a hermit has a great deal to recommend it.” After last night, Jamie was through with stopgaps. If he could not have what he wanted, it was better if he didn’t attempt to make do with second best. Jenifer was the third local girl in two years. Enough was enough.
“You do as you please.” The Magne shrugged.
The kettle boiled. Jamie made coffee, and they sat in the main room that took up most of the first floor of the house. Upstairs, under the slant of the roof, were Jamie’s bedroom and a small bath. He’d wanted something different from Pel House, and he’d found it.
The Magne leaned back in the chair and crossed his legs. “I need you to go into the Scour for me.”
“I heard the Gate into the Scour was closed to travelers,” Jamie said, surprised.
The Magne snorted. “We’ve decided on an observational tour for a small group.”
“We” Jamie took to be the twelve Magnes, absolute lords of the twelve remaining demesnes of Gallia. He did not want to be involved in Magne business. The Scour, on the other hand, like the Boundaries separating the demesnes, was under the Portall’s charge. Getting caught between the Magnes and the Portall was a dangerous place for anyone.
Some distaste must have shown on his face. His uncle smiled. “No, no politics. All I’m asking you to do is go into the Scour as my representative, spend some time there, observe, and tell me what you think. I want to know everything: what you see, whether it’s getting better or worse in there.” His face suddenly twisted with concern. “Whether it’s likely to spread past the Boundary.”
Startled, Jamie asked, “Likely? Is that possible? None of the other demesnes were involved in the Fire Plot. Why should it spread?” He used the common term for the disaster that had changed his life over fifteen years before. The Aaber, the grandmaster of all the Portall, had never formally blamed the four dead Fire Magnes for the deaths and destruction, but she’d never denied the rumors either. The Magnes, meanwhile, insisted the cause was unknown.
His uncle said, “James, your visit to the Scour won’t be secret. What I tell you now is confidential, and I need your word you will tell no one, the Magnes are…worried. Concerned.”
“Of course, uncle,” Jamie said promptly. “You have my word.”
The Magne shifted in his chair and pressed a hand to his imblem again. “In the demesnes bordering on the Scour, their Magnes say it has become difficult to pull or sustain a strong Power tap near the Boundary. I’d suspected this for some time, but as you know Magnes conceal weakness. The problem is now too open for them to deny. So the Scour might be spreading, or there might be some other cause.”
He continued, “Each of us is sending someone. You don’t have to bother with the other representatives if you don’t want. Oh, I’m sure there will be a few Portall acolytes around parroting the Aaber—ignore them.”
Jamie laughed. “Easy for you to say, Magne!” He had no desire to discuss anything at all with a Portall. Their awareness and resentment of his rank made such conversations unpleasant for both sides. Also, he’d spent time with them as a child; they weren’t happy memories. “True, but that’s one of the reasons I’m asking you. Your rank will make them cautious.”
“Perhaps you should send Alexandra?” His cousin Alexandra, the Magne’s daughter, was the demesne’s primary heir and very conscious of her status.
The Magne sighed. “Somehow I can’t see Alexandra tramping through the Scour. Besides, she’s already made up her mind.”
Jamie raised an eyebrow. Made up her mind about what? Before he could ask, the Magne said, “We get reports on the Scour from the Aaber. They’re very…general. Several of us, including me, wanted to go in ourselves, but since no one is sure what would happen, we decided this compromise would be best.”
Deflected from vivid memories of his cousin, Jamie stared at his uncle. “You wanted to go into the Scour? A Magne? Does the Aaber know what would happen?”
“No,” his uncle admitted. “Over the years, we’ve discussed it—the Scour blowing up, the Gate closing, some manifestation of Fire Power. The Aaber actually seemed frightened at the idea.”
Jamie blew out his breath. “I would think so.” He caught his uncle smiling again. “You had no intention of going in, did you? She was so relieved when you conceded, she agreed to the observers.” The Magne lifted his cup in a small salute.
“According to the Portall,” his uncle continued, “conditions are degenerating quickly in the Scour. Since the population can’t grow enough food and can’t leave, it’s bad. People are starving, dying of disease, starting fires.”
Jamie shrugged. “You can hardly blame them for the fires. How else will they keep warm with no Power taps?” Jamie hadn’t seen an open fire since he was a child of ten, before the Fire Plot. He remembered the beauty of the free and dancing flames and how he had wished he’d been born in a Fire demesne instead of one dedicated to the Earth. Later, of course, he’d been glad.
The Magne nodded, conceded the point. “The food we’ve attempted to transport in isn’t enough, not to mention how quickly it withers and rots once it crosses the Gate. But the Aaber has a way to get some of the natives out.”
“How?” Jamie asked.
The Magne smiled. “By creating a collar that acts as a reliq.”
“Collar? What kind of collar? How is that possible?”
The Magne called over his shoulder, “Jemm! Bring it in!”
One of the guards entered and handed the Magne the sack he’d carried. The Magne pulled out a gleaming metal circle about a foot in diameter. It was somewhat misshapen, as though someone pressed the edges down with both hands. “Lean over, Jemm.” The Magne raised the collar, but the guard didn’t move. Jamie saw his hand go to the reliq on its chain around his neck in a warding gesture.
“Don’t be a fool, Jemm,” the Magne said testily. “It’s not a real collar. This is only a model. Besides, you’re a man of Pel; you have your reliq. It won’t hurt you.” The guard bent forward reluctantly, hand still gripping his reliq, and the Magne put the collar over his head.
“The collars are bonded to a viable outside demesne and to the Scour native. After the bonding, the natives can be moved out. They can live and work in the other demesne, and the local Magne feeds them.” The Magne hesitated. “The Aaber is offering to sell these bonded workers to us. Some of my peers are accepting; indeed, some already have the workers. Others of us find the idea…distasteful. And suspicious. I need more information and anything else you observe.”
Jamie spoke directly to the guard. “Thank you, Jemm. You can take that off and return outside.” He held out his hand. Jemm gave him a grateful look and said, “Yes, Nom Pell.” He handed him the collar and left. Jamie had never given one of his uncle’s guards a direct order in front of the Magne before, but today he did not care if the Magne was annoyed. “Bonded workers. Slaves. The Aaber is offering you slaves. In return for what?”
The Magne leaned forward. “I’m here because the idea disturbs me, James. Not because I find it attractive. These people have no Magne to support their existence. Their land is, literally, dying. This is a way to get some of them out. She’s asking for money, yes, but we’ve been pouring money at the problem for fifteen years. The Aaber’s acolytes have to bond the collars and transport them, feed and shelter them on the way.”
Jamie asked, “If they can get some of them out, why not all of them?”
“According to the Aaber, only healthy adults can endure the collar bonding.”
Jamie said, “How convenient. What happens to the old, the children, the sick?”
The Magne shook his head.
Jamie persisted, “What happens if you take the collars off? Return them to the Scour?”
“If the collars are removed outside their bonded area, they die, exactly as if they went out-demesne without a reliq. According to the Aaber, they could be returned to the Scour and released, but why? The land is consuming itself. Fifteen years of no Magnes, the balance is so disturbed—the Aaber is pushing us to take all we can, as a humanitarian gesture.”
“Humanitarian.” Jamie stared at the Magne. “What kind of work would they do? Where would they be housed? The demesne people…” His voice trailed off as he worked through the implications of importing slave labor.
The Magne sighed. “Every demesne has vacant jobs at the bottom that no one wants to do, not even waifs. The clay quarry at Lingen, road clearing, and stoop labor in the fields—Haddo Demesne wants a canal dug, and cheap labor would be a great help. I need workers for the tramway extension.”
“And Alexandra approves of this?”
“She’s thinking about labor costs. It would be a considerable savings; she’s right about that.”
Jamie struggled to control his anger. “Suppose you had some of these people. They work. You feed them. Then they get old or sick. If you can’t take the collars off or return them to the Scour, which might not exist by then, what do you do with them? Demesne people have a share.” He kept his voice conversational, but it took effort. “Is anyone suggesting giving these people demesne shares?”
Three hundred years ago, the then Magne of Aluna Demesne had developed a radical economic plan for her population, guaranteeing her subjects care and comfort in their old age. Over time, other Magnes had followed her lead: the shares plans reduced unrest and Aluna remained one of the most prosperous demesnes. Gower and Freke Demesnes remained holdouts, but Pel had followed Aluna’s lead.
“No,” the Magne said, quietly. “Demesne shares are for those born in the demesne: my direct tenants, the sub-tenants, even the brickies and waifs get a share. You know that.”
Jamie had a vision of the Magnes and the Aaber, men and women all well fed and sleek with Power, seated at a huge council table, discussing the creation of slaves. The image made him ill.
He took a breath, reaching for calm. “You also said suspicious. How?”
The Magne shrugged. “You said it yourself; it’s an offer from the Aaber. It’s favorable to the Magnes. Of course I’m suspicious. I wish I could say the same for all my peers. I need more information. Will you do it?”
Jamie wanted nothing to do with this. But he had an obligation to his uncle. “Yes.”
Neither of them spoke for a few moments. The Magne broke the silence. “Be clear about this: I knew before I came here you would hate the idea of the collars. But I know you well enough to trust you will report fairly. I am responsible for the demesne, and I will decide the best course for the demesne whether or not you agree with me.”
“I’ll go.” It wouldn’t be the first time he’d scouted problems in other demesnes for his uncle. In truth, he welcomed it: too much time with no purpose drove him into fits of depression and into the arms of women like Jenifer. His rank, which he could neither ignore nor discard, was a narrow and cushioned trap. Perhaps he could do something useful, at least for the next few weeks.
By mutual consent, they dropped the problem of the Scour and discussed Jamie’s life in this remote corner of Pel. He’d moved up here for the privacy, but as the secondary heir, he had the ear of the Magne, and the locals had approached him on his trips to the village. He found it impossible to turn them away. Some families had been on the same land for ten generations or more, owners in all but name; Pel was second only to Aluna Demesne for peace and stability.
Jamie cooked supper, and they ate sitting at his small table. Jamie had enough to feed the bodyguards, who insisted they eat on the porch and remain on watch. Jamie didn’t bother to argue. The Magne was unperturbed by the simple meal, as if he hadn’t spent his life surrounded by servants, multiple courses, and an extensive choice of wines. Tonight, they drank water from the well.
They pulled on their jackets for the two-mile walk back to the village of Green Hills where the Magne would be sleeping at the mayor’s house. He had turned down the offer of Jamie’s bed since Jamie would have to sleep on the floor. As Jamie pulled out a portable light and checked the Power wafer, the Magne returned once more to the issue that had brought him.
“I hope you see this as a service to the demesne, not as a repayment to me. You owe me nothing.”
“I owe you a great deal, uncle. But I’m not fool enough to think I can repay you. Certainly not by visiting the Scour.”
The few residents they passed ducked their heads in respect but hurried past without speaking. Jamie saw the Magne and his guards safely to the mayor’s door. He walked past several shuttered shops and turned up a narrow alleyway. Green Hills had less than a thousand people, mostly farmers and craftspeople. The night was quiet; most villagers were in their beds. The alleyway was paved stone, as were all the wider streets; it snowed here in the winter, and unpaved roads became a bog in wet weather. The village had been settled soon after the Magician’s War had ended, almost a thousand years before. As the land returned to stability, this village and dozens like it had sprung up as normal people were able to work, sell their wares, raise and teach their children, all without fear of being blasted to smithereens in a Power battle.
The alley ended in a stairway. Here, the houses were small, stacked one next to another, sharing walls and drainpipes. A few lights shone from narrow windows and created pockets of deep shadow. He shone his hand light into the recessed doorways. Street crime was rare in Green Hills, but it wasn’t unheard of for a hungry waif to rob a villager after dark. The doorways were empty. Jamie climbed halfway up and knocked on a door. It opened quickly, letting a stream of lamplight onto the stairs.
“Well, here’s a surprise!” Cattie Penfold was stocky, square, with a ferociously short haircut. Her broad face grinned up at him. “With the Magne in town, too! To what do we owe the honor?”
Jamie grinned back. “Do you know everything that goes on around here?”
“Yes,” Cattie said simply as she turned sideways to let Jamie into the small sitting room. “That one was easy. I saw him get off the tram. The mayor was running around like a decapitated chicken. Beer?”
“A small one. I’m leaving with the Magne in the morning.” Jamie took a seat in the tiny room across from the brick-fueled stove and its welcome warmth. Cattie returned with three glasses of beer. Her partner Robear occupied his usual chair, his cane within reach and his game leg propped on a cushion. They’d finished a game of aberro; it looked as if Robear had won easily. Robear shoved the game box aside on the small table to make room. Jamie raised his glass to the two of them and drank.
When Jamie was a child, he’d spent more time at Cattie’s house than his own. He’d been a late birth, a failed solution to his parents’ troubled relationship. Cattie segued from his babysitter into his friend, listening to him as attentively as if he were her own age.
When he was ten, his mother went out-demesne to Coul, where she had family and—Jamie suspected as an adult—an old lover. His father dumped Jamie and a hastily packed satchel of his clothes with Cattie and went after her. Because it had happened before, Jamie didn’t pay much attention. Then the Fire Plot destroyed the four Fire demesnes, including Coul, and both Jamie’s parents had been killed.
Cattie was well into her apprenticeship in numeracy but not a full adult. She protested loudly when the Portall’s acolytes dumped Jamie and the other orphans into the Portall orphanage. Since she wasn’t a relative, she was ignored. But Cattie knew what Jamie did not: his father’s estranged half brother was the Magne of Pel. She wrote to him, and after the longest three months of his life, Jamie was rescued from the school and taken away to Pel House.
These days, Cattie did accounting for half the village and the surrounding farms. Until his accident, Robear had earned a reasonable living as a cook and manager of the village hostel. The previous winter he’d slipped on the icy stone stairs outside and broken his leg in three places.
Jamie asked, “How’s the leg? Can you go back to work?”
“I’m not sure I can. Not that job anyway, too much standing. Plus, my replacement is working out well…so, I don’t know. We’ll see. Did the Magne come all the way up here to drag you back to Pel House?”
Jamie snorted. “I wouldn’t go.” He hesitated. “He wants me to go into the Scour. Snoop around.”
Cattie and Robear looked at each other. They were an odd couple, one short and broad, one thin and tall, but like all the good pairings Jamie had known, they seemed to read each others’ minds. He suppressed a spurt of envy.
Cattie opened her mouth to ask a question, but Jamie forestalled her. “I promise to tell you all about it when I get back. All I can, anyway.”
“Give me a game before you go?” Robear gestured at the aberro box.
Jamie laughed. “You beat me the last three times.”
“Because you were distracted. When you pay attention, you’re an excellent player—better than Cattie.” Cattie made a rude gesture; he ignored her.
“Fine. One fast game.”
Robear inserted the Void board into the box, concealing his pieces. “Double?”
“I said a fast game; I have to get up early. Chaos.” Jamie arranged his pieces, and Robear pulled the board aside, revealing his. Cattie watched from her chair.
Jamie did his best, but Robear cornered him after thirty moves. Jamie resigned and leaned forward and picked up the carved counter with the Pel sigil incised on it. “The damned game is a metaphor. I hate metaphors.”
Cattie asked, “A metaphor for what?”
“The Magnes. Life in the demesnes. Pointless conflict.” At her raised eyebrow, Jamie expanded, “Sixteen counters to a side, sixteen demesnes. All on a board inside a box with no way out. Even when you win the game, you’ve simply moved from one side of the box to another. No change.”
“Don’t be so gloomy,” Robear said. “People might think you didn’t enjoy being one of the Thirty-Six.” This time Jamie made the rude gesture, and they all laughed.
Jamie said, “I should have brought back those books you loaned me. One of the Magne’s guards would have helped. Tomorrow…”
Robear interrupted him. “Leave them at the house. I don’t need them, or at least not right now.”
Cattie said, “Yes, please keep them. I think we have enough.”
Jamie grinned. The walls of the sitting room were lined with fitted bookshelves, each shelf stuffed to bursting. More bookshelves lined the stairs and the spare bedroom and threatened to overflow into their bedroom upstairs. This was the only house Jamie had ever been in that had a bookshelf in the bathroom. “If I’m gone more than a week, can you have someone check my house?”
Cattie said, “Certainly. Um…Jenifer is back at her parent’s farm?”
About to explain, Jamie looked at her. She smiled blandly. He said, “I suppose you heard all about that too?”
She drank beer, probably to hide her expression. He sighed. “Fine. You were right; you told me so; I give up.”
Robear said, gently, “Life is hard on the small holdings. You can’t really blame the girl for scheming to better her lot. You need a woman who doesn’t see one of the Thirty-Six when she looks at you.”
“I thought I had one,” Jamie said before he could stop himself. “But she had other ideas.” He finished his beer, shook Robear’s hand, and kissed the top of Cattie’s head.
“Take care,” Cattie said, and Robear nodded. Jamie shut the door behind him and strode off into the chill dark.