I’d known Laddigald Venn as a boy, and in my memory he was a titan, peering down at me with a smile that crinkled all the scars on his face. He’d scared me--that was mostly what I remembered. Little matched that old memory as I looked at him now. For one thing, he was short. But he made up for his shrunken stature by being thrice as thick as ordinary men; he looked like an armoire that had grown ambitious and sprouted legs. He didn’t scare me now, and he wasn’t smiling. He looked sad and off-kilter, holding his hat awkwardly in both hands, like he didn’t know what to do with it but didn’t think it was right to keep wearing it.
“I do remember you, Señor Venn,” I replied. “But I--”
“Gald, lad,” he cut in, his voice flinty and grumbling, like determined old gears in some big machine. “Call me Gald.”
“Okay. Gald.” I glanced down either end of the aisle of shelves, and I didn’t see anyone else, but the solitude of the library was artificial. Silence we had, privacy we did not. I didn’t know why he’d tromped up to me unannounced and unexpected, but something in his expression told me it was bad news. Frailty threatened his wintry blue eyes, a weakness that felt alien in a man so large and scarred as this Gald. “Should we go somewhere to talk?”
“Not much point. This news wouldn’t sound better somewhere else.”
He grimaced when he said it. His lips furled under the bristles of his mustache.
My guts tightened up. Pure instinct.
“What?” I said. “Has something happened to my father? I mean, you do still work with him, don’t you?”
Gald nodded once. His eyes were on my shoes. “Aye, lad.” He lifted his eyes up, met mine. That frailty I’d seen had proven momentary. His eyes were hard now; they matched the rest of him. “Your father is dead, lad. I’m sorry to bear this news.”
Everything went quiet. But it’d already been quiet; it was a damn library. The silence just felt more immediate, more solid. Like it had weight.
My head was empty. I stared at this Gald fellow, who was staring at me, and neither of us said anything.
My father. I hadn’t seen him in…eight, nine years? Who was he to me, really? Could I feel that much of an impact? I didn’t think so. He hadn’t exactly been a strong presence in my life, now or ever. So he was dead. What did that mean? I didn’t know. It might not have meant anything.
Dad. He’d looked a lot like me.
I began to put my book back on the shelf, but I couldn’t see its appointed home. I laid it sideways on top of the others. I scratched around my mouth, then ran my hand down one side of my face. I was halfway to running it down the other side of my face when I realized I was fretting. I crossed my arms, tucking my hands securely to hold them still.
Something low in my belly hurt.
“I see,” I finally said. “Well. Thank you for delivering this news.”
Gald frowned, bristly eyebrows hunching low over his eyes. “I know you and your father weren’t close, lad, but you need to--”
“I can’t imagine you know anything about my father and I,” I snapped, and then I felt a real emotion pushing up from deep inside me: anger, hot and restless and eager for a target. “Maybe you know my father, since he chose to wander off with you and those other degenerates rather than raise his only son, but you know nothing of he and I, and you know even less of me! You don’t know me, sir!”
Gald received my outburst with steely calm. He eyed me, composed as a two hundred and fifty pound cat. It infuriated me.
Suddenly I wished we had gone somewhere else. How could I yell properly in the library?
“I never said I knew you, boy,” Gald said, his basso growl even. “I said your father and you weren’t close. Given that I’ve not left his side in twenty-two years, I can declare that with utmost confidence. I want to tell you that despite what you may believe, your father cared for you, and his--”
“Is that why he shut me up in the church and walked away, never looking back?” I was too hot to just let him talk, to hear him say these ridiculous things.
Gald glowered at me, his wrinkles and scars bunching up in a grimace. “Evidently you were thoroughly cloistered, boy, for you’ve no sense of the world. After the war, there were few--”
“Are you going to blame my father’s irresponsibility on that? War is too easy an excuse!”
“You have an infuriating habit of interrupting people. Respect your elders, boy, or I’ll knuckle some respect into you.”
“And now you threaten me?” I wanted to laugh, but I was too angry to laugh, too frayed. It felt like I was wearing away at the edges, and the scenery was beginning to blur. “You walk in here, this surly little man I don’t know, tell me my ne’er-do-well father is dead, and threaten me because I’m upset?”
“I give you allowance for your grief. That’s why I’ve not yet chastised you, boy. Continue to disrespect me or your father’s memory, and I’ll forgo compassion.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, but Gald’s appearance backed up his words. He no longer fingered his hat; he had his hands at his sides, right hand free, knuckles clenched. Flat, scarred knuckles. The size of the man bothered me. He was huge, and so much of that girth was muscle. He must have been a terror in his youth. And by the look in his flinty eyes, I knew he meant what he said. He’d come delivering news of my father’s death, and he didn’t give a damn how atrocious it might be--he’d strike me here and now if he felt like it.
I said nothing, so Gald must have felt entitled to continue. “You didn’t know your father, but it wasn’t by his choice. The war forced hardships on everyone. The occupation shut down our offices and put us in the tenements. You might remember those days.”
I did. Bits and pieces. I remembered hot, dim spaces full of strangers. My mother, humming as she held me.
“After Rafaela died, your father had to make decisions. It wasn’t easy getting you accepted into the church. But friends owed us favors. That took care of you, but your father and I had to attend ourselves. We had to follow the work. And the work took us out of Spain, lad. But I’ll not listen to you slander your father simply because you didn’t know him. It’s custom to only speak well of the dead, but I’d not disrespect Mandrano so. Your father was a surly and uncouth man, a drunk, and possessed of a petty and unforgiving nature. Yet of his honor he was a jealous steward, and he didn’t flinch from what had to be done, when lesser men would have done so. I have counted no man outside my kin a brother, save he. So curb your temper, pup, and don’t disrespect your father in my presence.”
All of that, delivered with a level gaze and unwavering tone. A little mobile mountain, this Gald.
I didn’t know how to respond.
So I shrugged. “Okay. So now what? My father is dead, and you two were thick as thieves. Good to know. Will you be on your way, or do you want me to pop in at his wake and recite some lip-service prayer?”
I saw him move in time to blink, then what felt like a warm rock smashed into my jaw, blasting white light across my eyes and sending me reeling. I hit what had to be the shelf and used it to stop my fall, mostly by catching the book spines with my face.
“That was a reprimand, pup,” Gald growled. “The next will not be so gentle.”
Heat flushed my neck and prickled behind my face. I peeled myself off the shelf and looked down at the stumpy behemoth, counseling myself not to lash out, not to degrade myself by tearing into him, no matter how fiercely I wanted to do it. I was a man of the cloth, educated, enlightened, and anointed by God. I was not some scruffy miscreant who was so much an animal that he’d strike a priest in a church library.
I glared down at him, and felt my righteousness like a warm, invigorating cloak. He was a remnant from a life that had never been mine, a partner to my father’s mistakes. I owed him nothing. I was better than him.
“You need to leave, sir!” I declared.
“Your father was murdered.”
Gald looked at me with icy sobriety.
I blinked again. My skin cooled. I realized my anger was slipping away and I wrapped it around me again, my old familiar coat. “That should surprise me? What, gunned down by a street gang? Knifed by another vagrant?”
“You might remember Aldric Shellington.”
Gald had mentioned friends who owed them favors. Aldric was that friend. An ordained father, he had enabled me to join the church as a boy. “Of course,” I said.
“Aldric betrayed your father and killed him in cold blood.”
Aldric. I remembered a kind, smiling man from my childhood. He’d once given me chocolate.
“Aldric did this?” I said, numb, then the wheels in my head began to turn. Logic flared, likelihoods flowing into explanations. “Aldric is a magister. If he killed my father, then my father obviously became involved in illegal magics, and the act was justified in the eyes of the church.”
Gald’s expression had never changed, if not hardened. “The same hour he killed your father, Aldric killed four others. A houseman, a groundskeeper, and two maidservants. One of those maids was a fourteen-year-old girl. The only thing they had in common was they were all in Aldric’s way.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“Why? Because Aldric is a priest? Priests can do no evil?”
“What you’re saying makes no sense. Why would a magister kill innocents?”
“I have no explanations for what happened, boy. That’s part of the reason I came to you. You are a magister, and magic infects the bones of this skullduggery. That means you’re precisely the man I need.”
This was moving too fast for me. Yet basic logic functioned, and I voiced it. “If Aldric is party to illegal magics, then it has to go through the ecclesiastical court. If you wish someone to investigate--”
“This has nothing to do with the law, boy!” Now emotion showed in Gald’s eyes.
I fought hard to hold on to that thread of logic. “Without a lawful writ of censure, I cannot act in my capacity as a magister.”
“Your father has been murdered in cold blood and you’re muttering about the law?”
I shook my head. I looked at this smoldering little titan and kept shaking my head. I’d no grasp of what had gone on with him and my father and Aldric, but it was not my world. It was not my life. I’d taken vows. I knew right from wrong; I knew the law. I felt the surety of correct action in my soul. And this? This was madness.
I shook my head once more. “I cannot help you. And…I need to leave. You should, too. This is holy ground, and I don’t think you should be here.”
Gald grimaced. He looked as if he was about to say something but changed his mind. He nodded once. “This is a lot to take in all at once, I understand. Think about what I’ve said. I passed a watering hole on the corner on the way here. I’ll be there a spell. Come by if you measure your worth as a man.” Then he turned on his heels and tromped away. I watched him until he went ’round the edge of the aisle and vanished behind the shelf.
I stood there, considering the state of me.
I glanced at the book I’d left on the shelf. I wasn’t sure where it was supposed to go.
I wasn’t sure where I was supposed to go, either.
I eventually left the library. Numb, I moved through the corridors, passing familiar faces that seemed hazy and unreal. I made my way to my small appointments. I shut the door. Bright, cheerful light flooded in through the narrow window. It seemed inappropriate.
I felt adrift. Eventually I landed on my bed. I sat for a while. Thoughts flitted through my head, insubstantial. Trying to grasp a hold of any one thought felt like sticking my fingers in soup and grasping for the solid bits.
I opened the lower drawer on my bureau. I rummaged until I found that battered pulp serial, The Orient Queen. I opened the book, flitting the yellow pages until the weight of the photograph interrupted the flow. I plucked up that photograph and gave it a long look.
Color like bleached coffee showed me what used to be, four people holding still for the photograph-man; visual testimony that we’d once lived like we had all the time in the world. But right then, it’d been true; the British wouldn’t invade for a few more months. We were there in our best, evening wear and pocket watches. Mother sat in an upholstered chair wearing an impeccable dress, her hair modest. Father and Gald stood side by side in three-piece suits. There was me in a tiny suit of my own, but with a boy’s knickers. Everyone had the same bland expression from holding still for that long. Fixed like that, I could clearly see my father’s features. See the resemblance.
Like looking at my own ghost.
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