THE BLACK CLOUDS came down and pressed themselves against Stanton's face. He struggled weakly, turning his head from side to side, but they pressed ever closer. Streaks of yellow lightning began to appear in the distance, sizzling silently from right to left, left to right. The girl dressed in black - Toma - took his hand and pulled urgently. She said 'Come this way, if you want to see the secret. It's down here.' Stanton followed her down the long flight of spiral stairs. Cobwebs clung to him and bats could be heard overhead. It was raining - hot, tropical rain, bursting out of a golden sky like wine from a broken jug. Wittenham Clumps cried out 'All hands to the pumps!' - the Queen was caught on the reef! Stanton, at the helm, could see the fins of sharks moving slowly back and forth under the bowsprit. The figurehead was the girl, pointing ahead, towards the setting sun. 'This is where all secrets come from!' On the horizon was a giant human figure, erect and bearing a book and staff. Clumps was shaking Stanton's shoulder like a madman. 'Bring her round, Harcourt! You must bring her round!'
'Have you come round, Master Harcourt?' The hands were shaking less insistently now. Stanton opened his eyes a crack and moaned as hot whiteness seared into his brain. Through the film of tears he could see a young man's face bent over him. His head was cradled and something was slipped between his lips - a leaf? Reflexively he bit on it, releasing a sharp flow of flavour. The fresh scent of meadows swept through his body and his hands clutched and released. When he opened his eyes again the young man swam into focus. He was dressed all in white and had very fair hair, with pale blue eyes. Stanton tried to raise his hand to shut out the brilliant light that still flooded the room, but he could not move it. It was fastened at the elbow to some sort of apparatus.
'Don't be alarmed. You're safe now.'
Stanton's vision cleared further as he swallowed more of the herb's juice. He was in a small, square white room, with a window high in the wall to his left and a door at the foot of the bed. His right arm was attached to a metallic apparatus by a metal tube that was bound to the inside of his elbow. He was wearing a simple white gown. The man sat by the side of his bed was a nurse.
'Wh-where am I?' Stanton croaked painfully.
'Why, sir, you're in the hospital. Where else, with a great wound like that? You were lucky - you were found in Union Square, and two passers-by brought you in here.'
With a jolt the hideous events of the night leapt back into Stanton's mind - the rendezvous with Toma, the fight, the realisation... he groaned quietly and slumped back against the pillows.
'Now then, sir, not to worry, you're in the best of hands - the Hierarch Chirurge herself is attending you, and has bled you. You'll be as right as ninepence before you know it.'
Stanton carefully raised his other hand to his head. It was swathed in bandages and felt about twice the usual size.
'Drink some of this water when you feel ready, sir, and if you need me for anything just ring.' He placed a small brass bell on the table by Stanton's right hand.
'Wh-what time of day is it?'
'Just approaching three, sir. Now you get some rest, that's what the Hierarch said.'
Stanton began to protest feebly that he should have been at the Palace at two.
'Yes, sir, that's right: you have a nice lie down, and then we'll see about that.'
The door closed, and Stanton was left alone with his thoughts. He took up the glass and carefully swallowed some water. His head ached abominably, he now realised, but he had probably been lucky not to have a fractured skull. Looking around, he noticed that beside the jug was a letter, written on fine vellum and carefully sealed with a device he did not recognise. Curious, he took it up and awkwardly slipped it open with his thumbnail.
I hope you will forgive my forwardness in writing to you thus unintroduced. I wanted to convey to you my sympathy over the disappearance of your brother Rory, who was a friend and neighbour of mine. Anything that I can do to help you and your family in this difficult time I gladly will, you have but to ask.
Will you be returning to Harcourt Towers in the near future? If so, perhaps we could meet: or you can always reach me by post here at Mellangoose.
Yours, with all sympathy
Mary Philippa Woodvine (Lady)
How curious. This must be the woman of whom Jemima had spoken in her letter. A young widow. A friend of Rory's? The words seemed simple enough, but was there anything written between the lines? Just thinking about it made him feel light-headed and weak.
There was a knock at the door. The sound set Stanton's head ringing, and he was unable to respond. After a moment it swung open to admit Wittenham Clumps. The big man had a cautious look about him and quickly shut the door as he entered. He came over to the bed and took Stanton's hand.
'What a pair we make, eh?' His own bandages were less profuse than they had been yesterday, but he still had a pale and weak look about him, and was clad in a hospital gown. Stanton squeezed his hand mutely.
'M'not supposed to be up'n'about yet - mind you, you're not supposed to be seeing visitors yet! Mum's the word, eh?' He took a swig from the glass of water.
'Seems to me you're in a piece of trouble, youngster. What with this,' indicating his own head, 'and that,' indicating Stanton's, 'and what with a Captain of the Watch coming to see me this morning askin' about you... seems to me you're in more than a piece of trouble.'
'Was it Captain Greene?' Stanton asked, keeping his voice steady.
'Aye, that's right: nasty specimen. Says you killed a Watchman last night. I guess he came to see me because you weren't conscious yet. The Hierarch chased him away - no sand-flies on her! - but he'll be back on the morrow, with some nasty questions I'll warrant. Said your sword had been found stuck right through the fellow's body!'
Clumps obviously wanted Stanton to say whether the accusation was true or not. 'Well, it looks that way... I didn't see his uniform until it was too late. Anyway, he hit me first.'
The old man whistled between his teeth. 'It's a bad business, boy. I've seen that Greene's type. He's one of Kirkland's blue-eyed boys, I reckon. They'll stick whatever they can on you if they feel like it. The question is, what have you done to set'em off like this?'
Stanton shook his head wearily, immediately wincing and wishing he had not. 'I really don't know, friend... maybe something to do with Rory.'
'Hmm. Seems to me you'd be best off out of Rangar for a while.'
'I've only just come back!'
'Even so. Let this business go cold.' He paused, looking upwards towards the window, drumming his fingers on the table. Then: 'Heard about Pressman?'
'Disappeared. His house's been done over: all the valuables taken. Servant laid out cold, like I was. Bad business. Poor old fellow!'
Both were silent. Suddenly Stanton jerked painfully. 'Clumps, I'm supposed to be at the Palace!'
His friend looked down sympathetically. 'I'm sure the King'll understand you standing 'im up!' He rose to his feet. 'I'd best be getting back now. There's a service for that poor fellow I told you about yesterday - Medarch Lindos. Gone to a Higher Stage, in the night.'
He slipped out as quietly as he had arrived, and Stanton slumped back again. Was Clumps's advice good? Certainly he would be better able to investigate Rory's 'secret' at Harcourt Towers, and he might be removed from imminent danger there. But the thought that his enemies would be free to scheme against him here in Rangar was abhorrent. Also, his flight would look very like admission of guilt. The thoughts chased each other round and round, and he felt his eyelids growing heavy.
STANTON WAS WOKEN again by the nurse, who had a bowl of gruel, its milky smell setting his stomach rumbling.
'Is it evening now?'
The nurse laughed lightly. 'Bless you no, sir, it's morning! You slept all through yesterday, so the Hierarch thought it was time you had something to eat.'
The tube that had connected Stanton's arm to the msyterious apparatus was no longer there. The place where it had been attached hurt rather, but he was pleased to find his head nothing like so painful as yesterday. Better yet, his sleep had been untroubled by dreams. He stretched, enjoying the sensation.
The nurse raised his eyebrows. 'Well, we do seem rather better today! Just as well, for you have a visitor later this morning.'
'Who might that be?'
'A Captain Greene, of the City Watch: he and three of his officers are talking to Master Clumps - your friend? - and will be here in an hour or so.' His face took on a cautious expression. 'Of course, here we treat all, regardless of what offences they may have committed: the Hierarch has told Greene you're not fit to be arrested yet, but he is a rather impatient man.'
With that he left. Stanton mechanically ate his gruel, all the while looking about him anxiously. Was the net closing about him already? With relief he saw that his clothes were folded neatly at the foot of the bed. Should he try and escape now, before Greene arrived? He felt well enough to get to where he could call for a carriage, at least. Or should he wait, like the innocent man he was, and face Greene out?
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