“We’re too old for this.”
The man in the jail cell—no, make that the Aishling elf—blinked. “I beg your pardon?”
Alston pulled the chair from his desk right up to the bars and plunked down. For a long moment, he just stared at the prisoner, watching him lounge on the bunk. Then he shook his head. “We’re too old to keep doing this. I’m fifty now.” He pointed to his sandy hair, now graying and thinning.
The elf raised his eyebrows. His black hair showed some silver on the edges—an attractive silver, because these Aishling bastards even aged beautifully.
Alston sighed. “You’re too old for this nonsense too. Look, I can’t tell your age. Who knows with your people? And I understand that you live longer than we do. But you’re too old for the whipping you’re going to take. And I’m too old to hand it out.”
The Aishling grinned. “And too old to keep dragging my sorry arse in here, Sergeant?”
Alston chuckled. Actually, he thought the elf had a rather fine arse, but that was neither here nor there. “Yes, that too.”
“Well, I’m sorry to disappoint you. But I cannot let my age stop me from doing the right thing.”
“Listen to me, Mister, ah—” he faltered. “Can I call you by your first name?”
“Since I prefer you not to mangle my surname, yes.”
“Fine. You want to protest slavery, Davin? Or the cruelty of the copper mines? You be my guest.” Alston folded his arms across his chest. “But you can’t interfere with the mining operations. And you can’t put yourself between a taskmaster and a slave. You know that.”
“We abolitionists have been peacefully protesting for decades. Where has it gotten us?”
“Plenty far,” Alston countered. “There’s a new law in the works that will make killing a slave murder. And it will outlaw cruelty—”
“And it will die in the Assembly. The Traditionalists will vote it down.”
“I’ve heard King Rafe himself favors it.”
“That doesn’t matter. The law won’t advance without support from the Trads—and there’s nothing your human king can do about that.”
Alston sighed. “And you think that trespassing and fighting with a taskmaster will change things?”
Davin opened his mouth to respond—but then he clammed straight back up again. Alston narrowed his eyes at the elf, but his gut told him that Davin would answer in his own good time.
Meanwhile, he leaned back in his chair, surprised by how unsurprised he was at the sight of an Aishling elf in one of his two holding cells. His office, after all, was tucked inside a small, plain building near the mines. Usually he just had to hold onto a disorderly drunk or two before freeing them in the morning. Aishling prisoners were few and far between—even in the city proper, let alone this little outpost. But over the past year, Davin had become an alarmingly regular guest.
“What are you thinking?” Davin demanded. His tone was sharp, as if he were ordering some underling about.
“I’m thinking how—what’s the word?—incongruous you seem in this setting.”
“Ah.” His voice gentled. “As it happens, that’s also what I was thinking. In fact, that’s what makes my protests valuable, I believe.”
Alston cocked his head at him. “How so?”
“Few of my people are willing to meddle in the politics of this city—much less subject themselves to human justice. We prefer to keep to ourselves. Therefore, whenever you arrest me and bring me to court in Ironbound, I attract attention.”
“Oh yes. You just flash those violet eyes of yours and everyone notices.”
“Indeed. And thus I bring more attention to the cause.”
“And thus you also take a whipping—and I get the unpleasant duty of carrying it out.”
Davin smiled. “And that’s what troubles you?”
“Only in part. Davin, you know your back can’t keep taking this.”
He shrugged. “Fifteen to twenty lashes each time. That will never stop me.”
“They add up, believe me.” He flashed the elf a rueful grin. “I wish I could put you over my knee instead.”
“I’d like to see you try, my friend.”
“Is that what we are? Friends?”
There was something akin to warmth in Davin’s eyes as he answered. “Why not? We certainly see enough of each other.”
Alston took a moment to chew on that. “Then, uh, may I be so bold as to ask why you hate slavery? It’s not as if your people don’t practice it.” Hell, his people were even exempt from experiencing it, thanks to that special treaty of theirs. But Alston kept that to himself—no point in rubbing it in. Assuming, of course, that Davin didn’t take that exemption as his due.
Davin sat up straight and criss-crossed his legs on the bunk. He rested his hands on his lap and then gulped down some air. “I know my people’s history. I know we once enslaved all the humans of this area—and that even though you rule here now, by the grace of the Dragon, you’ve never had the chance to repay us in kind.”
“Don’t think I’m sorry about that. I don’t want to see your people enslaved. Hell, I’m not fond of seeing anyone enslaved.”
“But you’re not willing to do anything about it?”
Alston bristled at the judgment in his tone. “I vote for the Radicals, not the Traditionalists. Do you bother voting, Davin?”
The elf blushed at that, straight to the tips of those pointed ears. That blush didn’t render him any less attractive—not in Alston’s opinion.
“I do not vote in this city’s elections, no,” Davin said. “That’s not possible, as I’m sure you know.”
“Oh, it’s possible. There’s no law in the city of Halcrest that prevents an Aishling elf from voting.”
“In order to vote, I would have to take the oath of citizenship.” The words were slow and condescending, as if delivered to a five year old. “That is unthinkable. My people won’t put themselves under the yoke of the dragon.”
Alston snorted. He couldn’t help himself. “You’re already under the yoke of the dragon, just like the rest of us.”
“On the contrary, we have our own, separate treaty with him—”
“Which lets you keep your royalty and your Temple. I know that, Davin. But you still acknowledge Obsidian as the true ruler of Halcrest. So what’s the harm in taking the oath of citizenship?”
“I would be an outcast!”
Alston stared at him. He hadn’t expected that much of a reaction.
Apparently Davin hadn’t expected it either, because he took another deep breath. He seemed to be trying to steady himself. When he spoke again, his voice was under control. “It is out of the question.”
If he would truly be an outcast of his community, then that was understandable. Alston furrowed his brow. There was one Aishling on the Watch—a high born one, too. But Alston had heard that the fellow was now a pariah among his own.
A corporal entered the office just then and handed Alston a note. He read it, nodded, and then turned back to his prisoner. “Good news, Davin. You won’t have to spend the night. The courts have a light day; I’m going to bring you to Ironbound now.”
Davin nodded to his human supporters—word must have gotten out, for they were crowding the courtroom—as Sergeant Clarke led him inside.
No, not Sergeant Clarke. He could think of the man as Alston now. He had become a friend of sorts. Davin even managed a smile for the big fellow before turning to climb up the steps to the dock.
There was no seat in the dock, which looked rather like a small, cramped jail cell. Prisoners were made to stand and stare at their judges through mahogany bars. Davin took his place without complaint as Alston locked him in. The sergeant would stand at the side of the dock for the duration, in case Davin made some wild attempt to escape.
Davin looked up at his three judges, keeping quiet as they read the charges out loud. They were all Traditionalists, like as not. They certainly looked smug enough in their powdered wigs and ivory robes. The ivory stood for mercy, and yet it was also the color of their dragon’s teeth. No matter. Davin’s sentence was pre-ordained.
“You’re representing yourself, Mr. Breatnoch?” the judge in the center asked.
“And how do you plead?”
“Guilty, your Honor.”
“And have you anything to say for yourself before we hand down your sentence?”
“Only that I will continue to protest the barbarity we call slavery, your Honor.”
That inspired “Huzzahs!” and other cheers from the onlookers—so much so that all three judges called for order.
“If there are any further disturbances, this trial will be closed to the public,” the center judge warned. “Now, then—yes, Officer? You have something to add?”
Davin turned to his side, confused. Alston was standing there with his hand raised.
“As the arresting officer—and as someone familiar with the prisoner and his many injuries—I would like to call upon the court’s mercy and request a more lenient sentence than is customary, your Honor. In deference to the prisoner’s advanced years.”
It took a long moment for Davin’s brain to catch up with Alston’s request—there was only one lesser punishment the judges would still deem appropriate. But before he could pull himself together to object, the center judge was speaking again.
“Very well, Sergeant Clarke. For trespassing and disturbing the peace, we sentence Mister Davin Breatnoch to twenty strokes of the birch, to be delivered privately, in lieu of twenty lashes.” He banged his gavel. “Court dismissed.”
Alston unlocked the door to the dock, taking Davin by the arm as he climbed down. There were other watchmen present to keep the crowds back, so they made it to the little side room with the birching table without harassment.
Davin waited long enough for Alston to shut the door behind them before launching a verbal attack. “What a devil were you thinking?”
Alston looked him over—his hands were still in manacles, but you’d never think him a prisoner by that righteous fury in his eyes—and smiled. “Oh good.”
“Good? Good what?”
“You’re still speaking to me.”
Davin narrowed his eyes. “You did me no favors by this.”
“Yes, I did. Look, I reckon this will be embarrassing. And maybe it won’t generate the publicity you wanted—”
“Oh, it will generate publicity. I’ll be a laughingstock!”
“No you won’t.” Alston put as much quiet authority into his voice as he could muster. “I saw the way all those abolitionist folk looked at you, Davin. You’re a true leader to them—and they’ll hold this against me and the court, not you.”
That earned him nothing but a roll of the elf’s eyes.
“Besides,” Alston added, “at least this way you won’t end up a cripple.”
“That was my risk to take. You had no right to interfere.”
“I had every right. As long as you’re my prisoner, you’re my responsibility.”
Davin stared at him, his violet eyes still bright with fury, but at least he didn’t roll them again. And, at length, that fury turned to something else—some combination of resignation and, Alston thought, maybe even a grudging affection.
“Very well,” Davin said. “Shall we get this over with?”
Davin wasn’t afraid of Alston’s strength. The big fellow had never, he suspected, used the full force of it when carrying out Davin’s sentences. Was that because of Alston’s obvious infatuation with him? Possibly. But his restraint was likely due to common decency as well.
In either case, Davin had no need to fear this school boy’s punishment. It would be painful, yes—and it would result in cuts and bruises across his arse and the back of his thighs—but only his dignity would suffer in the long run.
He should be grateful, he supposed, that this humiliating punishment would occur here and not in public. Alston and some other officer would be the only ones to witness it. But news of the sentence would spread throughout the city. Davin’s enemies would have a long, hearty laugh at his expense. And as for Davin’s family . . . .
No. He couldn’t think of them. So he kept his thoughts trained on Alston instead.
Damn this thick-headed, interfering oaf! And damn him even more for making a bloody good point. Alston was right: as far as the lashes went, Davin was playing a dangerous game with his health.
Davin was left to his own devices when the punishment was over. Not for long, but there was time enough to rub some medicinal ointment onto his wounds—ointment thoughtfully provided by the city—and to pull up his breeches. But at length Alston reappeared, his cheeks red with embarrassment.
“How far do you live from here?” The human stared at the floor as he spoke. “In the Aishling enclave? I can hire you a coach—”
“I do live in the enclave, yes, but I won’t be staying there tonight.” Davin paused to open his eyes. “Where’s that other watchman?”
“He’s gone. I can fetch him back if you like.”
“No, I just wanted to make sure we had privacy. You may bring me to whatever wretched hovel you call home. At the very least, you owe me dinner. I would recommend a restaurant, but I’ve no desire to stand through a meal in public.”
“Ah—but, I, uh—”
“Are you still on duty this evening?”
“Have you a wife or some companion who will be displeased to see me?”
“No. No, I—I don’t. But my home is just a flat above a tavern. I don’t even cook up there.”
“Can you bring food up from said tavern?”
“Yes. I can do that.”
Davin nodded. “Then that will suffice.”
Alston brought up the best food the Red Dog offered: thick red clam chowder with biscuits for dunking, boiled ears of corn dripping with butter—the last good maize of the season, like as not—and strong ale to wash both down with.
Davin, as near as he could judge, was satisfied with his choices. He ate his fill and then some, even though he had to stay standing in deference to his wounds. And when he finished, he made no move to leave. He lay down on the settee instead, flat on his stomach, without waiting for an invitation.
Alston didn’t mind. Besides, he didn’t want the evening to end just yet. So he cleaned up the dishes as best he could, with water heated over the only fireplace. It was a warm night, but he stoked the fire when he was done. It would cool down before long, and they might be glad of a little heat.
Finally he seated himself cross-legged in front of the settee. Davin was still lying there, staring at the flames through slit eyes. He looked close to falling asleep. Well, small wonder, considering what he’d been through today.
Alston reached out to pat his shoulder. Perhaps that was a liberty, but Davin didn’t seem to mind. “Should I get you a blanket?”
“In a bit, I suppose. Tell me, Alston, did you notice anything about the crowd in the courtroom today?”
He furrowed his brow. “Other than the fact that so many of them supported you?”
“They were all human. None of my family were there. None of my people showed their faces.”
Alston wasn’t sure what to say to that. “Ah, well, I’ve heard most Aishling aren’t comfortable in human courts . . . ”
“That’s a poor excuse. I should come to terms with the truth, shouldn’t I? I’m already an outcast. Taking the oath in order to vote won’t make much difference.”
“I think it will give you a certain satisfaction to vote for the Radicals.”
Davin snorted. “The Rads are at sixes and sevens right now—leaderless and pathetic, for all that the human king himself is one of them.”
“You don’t care for King Rafe, then?”
“King Rafe isn’t the problem. He was an excellent leader for the Rads while he was still in the Assembly. But he has a different rôle now, and no one has proved capable of filling his shoes. And there’s no one promising on the horizon. Can you tell one Rad candidate from another?”
“No,” Alston said slowly. “No, I can’t. They all sort of blend together, with the same looks and the same rhetoric. And none of them seem to inspire much devotion.”
“Precisely. A pitiable lot.”
“But I, uh—well, I have seen people who seem devoted to you. I just saw a whole courtroom full of them.”
The Aishling’s eyes flashed. Or maybe that was just a trick of the flames. “Your point?”
“You stand out from the crowd, Davin.” Alston was warming to his theme now. “You’re striking. And not only because you’re an Aishling. You have something that makes people take notice of you. If you were to run for office—”
“Run for office?” Davin’s pushed himself up to a sitting position, but then winced in pain. He got back down on his stomach and glared at Alston.
Alston, for his part, bit back a laugh. That haughty, pained expression wasn’t funny. Not at all. Really it wasn’t.
Davin was not amused. “I’m only just considering the idea of voting. You expect me to run for office? I would be shunned! I would—you have no concept of how my people would treat me.”
Alston shrugged, recovering himself. “You said yourself that you’re already an outcast. And you know what they say. In for a copper, in for a drake.”
“Trust me, you don’t understand.”
“Maybe not. But, Davin, I think you might do your cause more good running for office than by trespassing and disturbing the peace. Your back and your arse will thank you for the change, if nothing else.”
Davin grunted. “Enough. I can’t think about this now.”
“Very well. And you’re right. You need your sleep. We both do, I’ll wager. Shall I fetch you that blanket, then? And some laudanum for the pain?”
“No, I’ll live through it without the opium. As for the blanket—yes, I’ll take one. Unless I’m welcome in your bed, that is.”
The words were so casual that Alston wasn’t sure he heard them. He swallowed. “My—my bed?”
“Yes, your bed.” Davin didn’t bother hiding his impatience. “I’m not mistaken in you, am I? You do fancy me?”
“I do, yes. But does that mean—”
“It doesn’t mean you should expect anything from me tonight, no.” Davin’s tone was filled with a long-suffering astonishment, as if he couldn’t believe he had to contend with such a dull-witted human. “I’m too sore by half, and, besides, it will take time to work your way back into my good graces.”
“But you want to share my bed?”
“I would like the comfort of your presence tonight, yes. Is that acceptable?”
“Yes! I mean, of course.”
Davin held out his hand. “Help me up, then.”
Alston complied, and together they made their way to his bed, which was tucked into the corner of the same room. Alston could still hear the crackle of the fire as they both stripped down to their long shirts and then slid under the covers.
He wasn’t sure what to expect, but Davin settling down half on top of him, his arse facing the ceiling and his head in the crook of Alston’s shoulder? That was just fine. He just put his arm around the Aishling—gently, so as not to disturb any wounds.
They lay there in silence for a long time. Alston thought Davin had dozed off—but at length he spoke up.
“You’re right on one account, Sergeant. I would make a striking candidate.”
“You would.” He stroked the elf’s hair, enjoying the silky feel of it. “I’d vote for you.”
“Good. That’s one vote, then. Two, if we count my own.”
Alston grinned. “Well, then, that’s a start.”
(© 2013 Jennifer R. Moss. All rights reserved)