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The Spark: Chapter Nine

       Last updated: Friday, September 29, 2017 18:32 EDT



A Damsel in Distress

    “My sister Eloise is very beautiful,” Frances said. “She took after our mother. Eloise isn’t stupid, but I sometimes think that she doesn’t have good sense. She hasn’t needed good sense, of course, because she’s beautiful.”

    She stopped and frowned at the way she’ put that. I’m sure Beune isn’t the only place a pretty girl could get just as deep in trouble as an ugly one and get there a lot quicker. She flicked a hand angrily and said, “Eloise had father and then me to look after her. And we’re quite wealthy. The wealthiest family on Holheim, I believe.”

    She scowled at the mug in her hand, then set it down with a clack against the table. “Is there wine on this benighted place?” she said. “I’ll pay for it!”

    Guntram looked at me. I said, “I guess the boat’s converter’s the only place on Beune that you could get wine. Do you want to go back aboard, ma’am?”

    “The wine on the boat is terrible!” Frances said. “It tastes of turpentine. I mean it: turpentine!”

    “I dare say Pal and I can adjust the menu choices on the converter,” Guntram said. “If you like, we’ll do that now.”

    “Oh, it doesn’t matter,” Frances said. She was flashing from high-and-mighty to right to the edge of giving up, if I was reading her voice right. “Everything’s gone wrong since I got on this wretched boat. Since the envoys came from Marielles. That’s when the trouble really started.”

    I walked over and dipped more ale into her elmwood cup from the barrel and put it down beside her. I thought she might fling it at me, but she just took a sip like she hadn’t even noticed me move.

    “There were two of them, courtiers,” Frances said. “Prince Potentate Philip of Marielles was looking for a wife. They’d come to Holheim because they’d heard that Lady Eloise was a beauty.”

    She sniffed. “I’d have sent them away with a flea in their ear, I can promise you that,” she said. “But the news got to Eloise–one of the servants talked, I’m sure, and they’ll regret it if I ever learn who it was. Eloise was always flighty, you know, always reading romances. I think she half believed that she really was a king’s daughter and only being fostered here.”

    “Could that be true?” I asked.

    Frances glared at me. “In dim light, she and mother could’ve passed for twins!” she snapped. In a milder voice she went on, “Mother was always full of nonsense too, though she was a sweet lady. She died a year ago, not long before father. He loved her very much.”

    Frances shrugged. “The courtiers took Eloise’s image in a mirror and went back to Marielles,” she said. “I gathered Philip had sent out several groups of people. They went by Road.

    “Did they all have mirrors?” Guntram asked, leaning forward slightly.

    “I suppose so,” Frances said with another dismissive flick. “I couldn’t say, could I? Do you imagine I was interested in such things?”

    “I gather not,” said Guntram, nodding politely. “Please go on.”

    I gave him a kind-of grin. It’s hard for folks like us who’re interested in all sorts of things to understand that a lot of people aren’t, even though they tell us so every time we start chattering about the most wonderful thing that we just learned.

    “Well, I hoped that was the last we’d hear of Marielles and this Prince Philip,”

    Frances said. “But it wasn’t, in three months a whole delegation came to work out the details of the marriage with father.”

    She paused and took a deep breath, flaring her nostrils. “The prince demanded a huge settlement,” she said. “Nearly half the family’s worth. I don’t know if father would have agreed, even with Eloise weeping every time he tried to bargain the envoys down a little, but then mother died. Father couldn’t refuse Eloise after that. He didn’t have the heart for it. He met their terms and they went back to Marielles.”

    “What did you do during the negotiations?” Guntram said. He held his mug, but I hadn’t seen him drink since I came into the shed.

    “I did nothing!” Frances said. She was angry again, but maybe not angry at Guntram. “It was none of my business. If you mean the settlement, it’s family money and Eloise is family. If she wanted to spend it to buy a prince, well, she was no more of a romantic fool than she’d always been.”

    I hadn’t sat down. I’d thought about sitting crosswise on the floor, but it was just as easy to stand and listen while the lady talked.

    “Anyway, the envoys went off,” Frances said. “And after another month a boat came for Eloise. Father had made it clear that Eloise couldn’t be expected to walk to Marielles.”

    I’d never heard of Marielles or Holheim either one. I figured they were bigger places than anything around Beune. For the first time ever I wondered where the boats that landed on Beune when I was young had come from.

    “The boat came and it was very well decorated, but the boatman claimed that it would only carry two people besides himself,” Frances said. “I thought he was lying since there were eight cabins, but I gather he may not have been. At any rate, Baga is telling me the same lies if it is a lie.”

    “If that boat was in as bad shape as Baga’s,” I said, “it was probably the truth.”

    I walked over to the ale cask. There were only the two cups. There were others in the house, but there hadn’t been a need for more out here, so I drank from the ladle. Just enough to wet my dry lips and mouth.

    “The boatman’s name was Camm,” Frances said. “I didn’t like him or trust him.”

    I must have smiled because she looked sharply at me. I expected another blast, but instead she returned a slight smile and said, “All right, I suppose I don’t like or trust many people. I’ve had to handle the family estate since father died. Really since mother died, because he lost all interest. And–”

    She swallowed and screwed her eyes up tight for a moment, though she didn’t wipe them with the back of her hand as I thought she might.

    “Well, that doesn’t matter,” Frances said toward her mug. “Father had died before the boat arrived, so I had a free hand to deal with the situation as I saw fit. Camm wanted me to send the credit transfers along with Eloise. No fear that!”

    She flicked her hand again, getting back to the old her. “There was a boat based on Holheim though it could only carry one passenger. I made sure that the compartments of Camm’s boat could be locked from the inside, then sent Eloise off with Camm and a bodyguard. I was going to carry the credits in the other boat, Baga’s boat, but he claimed to have gotten sick. It was three weeks before I could leave.”

    “You trusted the bodyguard?” I said.

    “The bodyguard was a eunuch,” Frances said. “I had him examined before I appointed him. He was really there because I was afraid Eloise would open her compartment even though I made her promise not to until she reached Marielles.”

    “This appears to be a reasonable plan,” Guntram said. “I gather something went wrong?”

    “Eloise wasn’t on Marielles when I got there!” Frances said. “She hadn’t arrived, Philip claimed. Well, I’m not sure Philip has brains enough to lie, but his mistress Hellea, Lady Hellea, she calls herself, certainly does. And can you believe it? She suggested that I should transfer the credits to Philip because he stood ready to marry my sister–which was his part of the bargain!”

    Her hands were squeezing the mug hard, I think to keep them from trembling. “I demanded they bring my sister to me at once,” Frances said, “but Philip and his toadies kept claiming she hadn’t arrived on Marielles. I realized that I wasn’t going to accomplish anything on Marielles, so I set out for Dun Add to demand that the Leader, Jon, send a Champion to force Philip to produce Eloise. And then the boat broke down!”

    I looked at Guntram. There hadn’t been any tricky dealings in Baga’s boat landing here, and I could sure imagine the boat with Camm having similar problems.

    I don’t know what Guntram was thinking. What he said aloud was, “Well, Lady Frances, the first thing to do is to put your boat back in running order. Pal and I will get to work on that immediately.”

    He rose and I followed him out of the shed.



    I felt easier going back into the boat along with Guntram than I had when I’d entered it alone. Once the boat had started talking to me I got more comfortable, but it was still more complicated–a hundred times more complicated–than the weapon Guntram and I had fixed when he first arrived. Nothing else I’d worked on came near to the weapon for being hard.

    What we did to begin with was look for where we were going to do the repairs. In trances Guntram and I didn’t see each other like if we were talking over the kitchen table, but we knew each other was there. He’d sketch breaks in the structure to show me the way he wanted to take care of them. After he started guiding me through the repairs in sections, the job didn’t make me tighten up inside.



    After we’d gone over a section, we came out of our trances and looked at what we needed for the repairs. I’d already asked the neighbors about what they had in the way of materials that we might need, and I sent a local lad–Faney, about my age but not quite right in the head–up to a storekeeper in the far north to see how much salt and other things there was. I didn’t want to leave Beune unless I had to, though I’d do that needs must.

    The boat… well, you couldn’t say it was happy, really, the boat was just a thing like an axe or the roof of the shed. But it was learning to throw up information the way we wanted it, and sometimes it made suggestions. I wouldn’t have thought of using iron pyrites to get sulphur, but the boat strung various sources under each element. The gravel in central Beune has pyrites in it, so we bought a bunch of the cheap necklaces that girls from the district wore.

    I say ‘we bought’ but at first it was Guntram. Frances had money and she never got tired of telling us so–only it wasn’t in a fashion we could spend here. The little wonders that Guntram made out of my bits and pieces were just what was called for.

    The work went faster than I’d dreamed because after we fixed the part Guntram began on, the boat started to help. We’d come back after as much as we took of a night’s sleep and find that what we’d been working on was a lot farther along.

    I realized that if the boat hadn’t been self-repairing, it wouldn’t have survived more or less complete. Everything else from the time of the Ancients was in scraps, much of it beyond even Guntram’s abilities to rebuild.

    I really liked what we were doing. I’d been in pretty bad shape when I first got back to Beune. In my mind, I mean, though my shoulder where Easton hit me still ached when I got up in the morning.

    To me, being a Maker was sort of like being tall: just a part of who I was. It wasn’t something I much cared about, and it sure hadn’t been what I dreamed about being. Now that I saw the difference we were making in the boat, I’d started to think that being a Champion wasn’t the only thing that was worth doing.

    And sure, I say “we” were making a difference when it was mostly Guntram, but if I had the chance to do it again by myself, well, I’d learned a lot. The biggest thing was knowing where the repair circuits were and starting there.

    Guntram and I quit work on the third day and trudged back to the house for supper. When we got there we found a ham roasting, potatoes cooking in their jackets, and a pot of greens hanging from the hook in the fireplace that hadn’t been used since mom died. I didn’t recognize the woman who was doing the cooking, but she curtseyed and said, “Master Pal, I’m Aggie, I’m Gammer Kleinze’s niece. Lady Frances has hired me.”

    “Ah…,” I said. “Ah, the food smells really good, but….”

    “You’re wondering how I’m paying for this,” Frances said, as she gathered up the accounts she’d been going over on the table.

    In fact I hadn’t. I figured Guntram was paying for it; though my credit might run to a spread like this. I wouldn’t have put it past Frances to tell my neighbors to charge it to me.

    “The money I brought can’t be spent here,” said Frances, putting the loose sheets of paper into a folder which in turn she transferred to a flat case. “However, I went to Marielles with a wardrobe suitable for a palace wedding. I’ve offered some for barter through Mistress Kleinze, thinking that they might be of interest to people here for the fabrics, but I gather they’re mostly being bought to be kept as-is–or at least modified to fit the purchaser.”

    I was as tired as I’ve ever been in my life, and what part of my mind still worked stayed deep in the job Guntram and I were doing. When I heard that, though, I started to laugh. I was thinking of Borglum’s wife Mavis getting into an outfit made for Frances.

    Maybe Mavis’ right leg would fit. The women of other farms that were doing well enough to afford fancy clothes weren’t a lot different from Mavis. A few of the younger daughters, maybe. But our taste on Beune doesn’t run to women built like sticks, or to men either. My neighbors all thought that mom ought to fatten me up so I looked healthy.

    Frances didn’t look best pleased when I laughed. I suppose she didn’t know why, and I’m not sure she’d have been any happier if she had understood.

    “I’m used to paying my own way,” she said, sounding peevish. “And I told you that I’ve managed the estate’s accounts for years. I assure you that I understand trade.”

    “Thank you for your initiative, Lady Frances,” said Guntram. “This looks like a fine meal, far better than what I would normally eat at home.”

    That’s what I should’ve said, I guess. Well, I wouldn’t have put it that way, but I should’ve tried. Mom had tried to teach me company manners, but we didn’t have enough company for me to practice on.

    “There’s a table coming,” Frances said, “but it won’t arrive until tomorrow. For now we’ve borrowed this from Phoebe.”

    For a moment I couldn’t place the table that had replaced my puncheon; then I realized that it was Gervaise’ old one that he’d moved to his chicken coop after he bought my house and furniture. He and the boys must’ve spent hours sanding it clean before they brought it up here.

    “This looks fine to me,” I said, smiling at Frances. I was hoping to make up for having laughed.

    “I’m sure it does,” Frances said. “To you. There will be a walnut table tomorrow, and this–” she tapped it “–can go back to your neighbor.”

    “Yes, ma’am,” I said and backed out of the way as Aggie put out the place settings. That was about the smartest thing I’d managed since I stepped through the door.

    It was the best meal I’d had in Beune since dinner at Phoebe’s the night Guntram arrived.



    Guntram and I had the repairs near completed by noon of the fifth day we’d been working. We came back to the house together.

    “Would you like me to ask her?” Guntram said.

    I surely would like him to do it, but it was my job. “Sir, you’ve done most of the work when it was me who took the job on. This is something I can do, so I’m going to.”

    Guntram nodded. “As you please,” he said.

    I didn’t now how he felt about it. Probably he didn’t have an opinion one way or another. It didn’t matter anyway, because I’d already decided what was right.

    Frances rose from the chair she’d set on the stoop. She’d moved into the house after spending the first night on Beune in the boat. Guntram and I slept on shake-downs in the shed. Baga had been with us at first, but moved into the widow Herisa’s house a few days ago. He’d been eating with her too and I guess helping around the farm. Everybody was happy with the situation, anyway.

    “Have you completed the task?” Frances said. “Can I get on to Dun Add now?”

    “Almost,” I said. I swallowed and went on, “Lady Frances, there’s one more thing we need to make it all right; that’s manganese.”

    I nodded to Guntram. “Now, Guntram brought some of the hardest elements to find along with him,” I said. “That’s why we got as much done as we did. But he didn’t bring manganese and it’s not something that shows up here concentrated enough for us to use.”

    “Will the boat work without it?” Frances said, frowning. “Surely it will, because it got this far with so much more lacking?”

    “Ma’am,” I said, “it’ll work, but it won’t be content.” I’d almost said “won’t be happy,” but it was a boat, not a person or even a dog. “Ma’am, that necklace you wore when you first came here, the purple stone?”

    “Yes, the jade I wore with the violet dress,” she said, frowning harder. “What of it?”

    “The boat says the stone has enough manganese in it,” I said. “Just one bead ought to do if it’s one of the really purple ones. Can I have a bead to grind up and finish the job?”

    “You want part of the necklace my grandmother gave me on my twelfth birthday,” Frances said. There wasn’t a hint of what was going on in her mind. “So that you can make a boat happy?”

    “Ma’am, I didn’t say that,” I said. That was almost a lie, because I’d sure thought it.

    “I’ll get the necklace,” Frances said. “I put it away when I sold that dress.”



    I powdered the bead by hammering it in a linen bag that Aggie had whip-stitched from a scrap she’d found in mom’s rag bag. I could’ve had Phoebe do the same thing, but I don’t know that I’d have thought of that. Likely I’d just have folded the cloth over the bead.

    Guntram was in a trance with me, but he had me do all the work. It wasn’t difficult, not after what we’d done already. There was even manganese left after the boat told me that the job was complete, so when I came out of my trance I transferred it from the ready-use tray to a storage hopper.



    I stretched and smiled at Guntram. “You know?” I said. “We wound up using a lot of that sand Baga loaded. We needed the crystal, but the boat couldn’t use it without the trace atoms to fill in the structure.”

    “Yes,” said Guntram. “This was the first time in a very long while that the boat has been in design condition.”

    We started back to the house. I said, “I guess we ought to send somebody to find Baga. The boat’s ready to go any time.”

    Then I said, “I, you know…. I mean, it’s a boat, it’s not somebody. But it made me feel good when it thanked us just now.”

    “The boat thanked you,” Guntram said, with just a touch of extra weight on the last word. “I did much of the work, of course, but the boat was aware that you were responsible for the extent of repairs. Pal, I don’t think that you should discount the degree of awareness in machines of that complexity.”

    Frances watched us from the stoop. Her arms were crossed before her with the fingers stiffly interlaced. Her face didn’t show any expression, but there was a quiver in her voice as she said, “Is it finished, then?”

    “The boat’s in fine shape,” I said. “Ma’am, thank you again for giving me the purple bead.”

    “Lady Frances,” Guntram said. He gestured toward the door. “I’d like to discuss your further plans inside where we can sit down, if you please.”

    I could see Frances get her back up a little; the tone and words were as polite as you please, but Guntram wasn’t really asking a question. She gave a little nod, kind of a peck with her chin, and led us inside. Aggie was cooking on the summer oven in back, so I didn’t have to wonder whether I ought to send her out.

    Guntram eased onto the chair he sat in at dinner. He looked at the lady across the table from him and said, “We haven’t discussed the matter formally, but I gather your intention is to approach my foster son in Dun Add and request his assistance. Is that correct?”

    “Your foster son?” Frances said. This time her frown was more startled than angry. “I’m going to see Jon, the Leader!”

    “Jon is my fosterling,” Guntram said calmly. “What sort of assistance are you going to request, please?”

    “Well, to get my sister back!” Frances said. “To force Philip to produce her!”

    Guntram nodded. “On your evidence,” he said, “you put Lady Eloise on a boat in Holheim. When you reached Marielles some time later, you were told that Lady Eloise had not arrived there. Do you have any evidence that she did arrive?”

    Frances stood up. “This isn’t right!” she said. “Are you telling me that I ought to shrug my shoulders and just forget about my sister? Eloise may have been a fool, but she was my sister!”

    “No, Lady Frances,” Guntram said. “I’m telling you that Marielles is a very long way from Dun Add, and that all you can tell Jon is that your sister left Holheim and disappeared. Jon will not order one of his Champions to travel to Marielles on that relation.”

    His lips quirked into a kind of smile. “If your sister is as attractive as you say,” he added, “and if you had one of the Ancient mirrors holding her image as you describe, there are a number of Champions who might very well come on their own, though I doubt any of them would be helpful in Marielles.”

    “They could take Philip by the neck and shake the truth out of him, couldn’t they?” Frances shouted.

    She was so mad she could’ve burst into flame, I swear. Guntram didn’t do anything, just looked at her. After a moment, she sat back in her chair again.

    “I haven’t asked your advice yet, Master Guntram,” Frances said. “What do you recommend that I do?”

    “I recommend that you arrange for Pal to escort you back to Marielles,” Guntram said.

    I straightened up at that. I’d been real interested in what Frances and Guntram were saying, but it didn’t really matter to me. It’d been like watching two people batting a ball back and forth.

    Now I was the ball.

    “Guntram?” I said, talking louder that I usually did–or wanted to. “Let’s go outside and talk this over, please. Ma’am?” I turned to Frances. “Excuse us for a bit if you will.”

    “I will not,” Frances said, sharp as a branch cracking in a windstorm. “Whatever you have to say, you can say in front of me! I’#8217;m the one it matters to, after all.”

    Well, it matters to me too, I thought, but I didn’t think it’d help matters for me to say so. I looked at Guntram and he said, “Go ahead, Pal. The lady does have a right to hear us.”

    I swallowed. “Guntram,” I said, “I’m a farmer from Beune. I can’t go off to a place I’d never heard of before and do anybody any good.”

    “That’s what a Champion does, Pal,” Guntram said. “Go anywhere to right wrongs. You went to Dun Add to become a Champion.”

    “Right, and you know how that worked out!” I said. “I sure haven’t forgotten it, though I wish to God that I could!”

    “A woman needs help,” Guntram said. He didn’t raise his voice the way I had mine, but he sounded like he expected me to hear him. “Are you unwilling to help her, Pal?”

    “I’m not unwilling,” I said, turning to look down at the floor. “I just don’t see that I can.”

    “You have a weapon that’s as good as what all but maybe a dozen of those in the Hall of Champions carry,” Guntram said, his words grinding down on me like rocks. “You’ve practiced with it this past month, and I can assure you that you understand its use as well or better than almost any of them.”

    “But the machine isn’t a fair test!” I said. “Buck predicts the movement better than a human could and I just slant the stroke away.”

    “What you’re doing with the practice machine,” Guntram said, “will be equally effective with a human opponent. Maybe it’s because you’re a Maker too, Pal, but I’ve never talked to another warrior who does what you’re doing. Consciously, I mean. I suspect Lord Clain and a few other of the top warriors are doing the same thing, but they’re not aware of it the way you are.”

    I opened my mouth to say that Easton had taken me apart, then shut my mouth. A month practicing with Guntram’s training machine had made a difference. I thought back to that first fight and saw how I could’ve handled Easton even with the hardware I’d had then. Maybe not put him down, but keep him from hammering me. He was soft and plump. I could’ve outlasted him if I’d used my weapon without my shield.

    “Sir,” I said. “I’m not going to shake Philip till he blurts something. I’m sorry, I’m not. If that’s what being a Champion’s about, then I was never meant for the job. And besides, on Frances’ own telling–”

    I nodded to her.

    “–Philip didn’t make away with her sister anyway. And I#8217;m sure not going to start choking a woman because she might know something.”

    From the look on Frances’ face, she sure wouldn’t have any problem choking Lady Hellea–or me, if it came to that. She was still pretty angry. She didn’t say anything, though.

    “I didn’t suppose you would,” said Guntram. “What you could do, however, is enter the log of Lord Camm’s boat and learn the route it took on the way back to Marielles.”

    “Well, if I could find that boat, sure,” I said, but I wasn’t arguing any more. Guntram wouldn’t have said that if he didn’t have an idea. “Do you know where it is?”

    “Baga’s boat linked with Camm’s boat on Holheim when it came for Lady Eloise,” Guntram said, “and again on Marielles when Lady Frances went there. I expect you will find Camm’s boat still on Marielles.”

    “Philip lied to me!” Frances said. “He claimed the boat hadn’t returned!”

    “He lied, or someone lied to him,” Guntram said calmly. “You and your escort will probably be able to determine that on Marielles, though that is secondary to finding and if possible rescuing your sister.”

    He looked at me again.

    “I didn’t think of checking the log,” I said. “Sorry, sir.#8221;

    “You had no reason to do so until you needed to help Lady Frances,” Guntram said. “Well, Pal?”

    I was afraid. Not of being beaten or thrown in prison or anything like that: I was afraid of making a complete fool of myself, like I had in Dun Add.

    I grinned. That didn’t kill me, did it?

    “What are you laughing about?” Frances said. I guess she sounded shrill even when she was in her best mood, but that wasn’t today. “Do you think this is funny?”

    I looked at her and grinned wider. “Ma’am,” I said, “I’m thinking that the experience I got in Dun Add has prepared me for what I’m likely to find in Marielles.”

    I moved my chair back carefully so I didn’t knock it over and stood. I was so nervous I didn’t trust my control.

    “If you think it’s the best choice, Guntram,” I said. “I’ll try. And if you agree, ma’am?”

    “It sounds as though I don’t have much choice,” said Frances. I couldn’t see any expression in her face or her voice. “Yes, I accept your help, Master Pal.”

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