The Man in the Feathered Cloak by Jack Mulcahy

The Man in the Feathered Cloak
Jack Mulcahy

Hungry, cold, Suzannah shivered in the alley, watching vendors in the bazaar closing up their carts. Tantalizing aromas of bread and meat, fish and cheese lingered in the frigid air, making the girl’s mouth water. As evening fell over the whitewashed walls and tiled roofs of Gilam, fathers, mothers and children were streaming home, holding hands, chattering happily about the Winter Festival. Streets and houses were swathed with evergreens, and in each window six Festival candles burned, casting a magical luster over the frozen city. Families soon would gather at the sacred fires to renew their commitment of love to each other and the Lord and Lady.

No one noticed the little girl huddled amid the debris that had been swept off the main streets. Suzannah pressed against the rough stucco wall, hugging herself against the cold, the way Papa had once hugged her. Years ago, when she’d been just a child, she had burrowed deep into Papa’s lap while he read the stories of the Lord and Lady. At that time, Suzannah had been convinced it was magic that let Papa read with his eyes closed. “Open your eyes, Papa,” she would say, and he would snap awake with a smile, and resume the story. Now that she was nine, all grown up, she realized there was no magic, he simply knew the stories by heart.

“Open your eyes, Papa,” she murmured now. The words ghosted away on the silvery mist of her breath. She moved through the litter-strewn alleys, a ragged little figure in a tattered brown cotton tunic and someone’s discarded cloak of dark wool. Mama had made the tunic for Suzannah’s seventh birthday. The garment was torn and stained, and the sleeves trimmed in blue felt just barely reached her elbows. Her black hair was a wild mass of tangles and knots, with uneven bangs she kept brushing out of her eyes. Sharply contrasting with her hair, her face was the pallid white of watery milk, with faint traceries of blue veins clearly visible.

Cautiously she approached the bazaar. The deerskin shoes Papa had sewn for her were thoroughly soaked from melting snow, and made sloshing noises. Abruptly, two constables elbowed their way through the polychrome festival crowd. Suzannah ducked behind a mound of garbage. “You’ll not cut my hands off, you filth,” she muttered.

But there would be more constables soon, and she was getting desperate. Her only meal had been some thin gruel this morning. She could no longer ignore her gnawing hunger. She was about to turn into Khush Alley when another possibility appeared.

The man towered over the other passersby, yet his height was only part of what captured her attention. His exotic cloak reached his knees, made of bird feathers of every color and description, and he walked as if his feet did not quite touch the ground. He had a broad, square face, dark brown like old copper, with fierce, black eyes, blunt nose, firm jaw accented by a short grey beard. He’d tied his iron-grey hair in a braid, and wore a gold torque around his neck that dazzled her eye. Even in the Festival crowd, he looked as inconspicuous as a ruby atop a heap of coal.

Suzannah noticed the lump at his hip that must be his money pouch, and the way he favored his right leg. When he paused at a cart of silk scarves, she looked away. He’d recall her mismatched eyes, one green and one blue. He held up a scarf showing a red-haired boy that made her think of Donall Truthsayer, Papa’s favorite tale. He nodded, then drew a silver coin from a pouch at his silk girdle. She noted the shape and approximate weight of the pouch, figuring the easiest way to lift it.

He folded the scarf into his waistband and moved on, the clink of silver promising food and a warm bed. She shadowed him through the bazaar, until a commotion stopped him and she nearly bumped into him. The constables were bullying the crowd aside, dragging a scrawny boy who twisted in their grasp, shrieking, “I didn’t do anything! Let me go!”

A short, pasty-faced man with brown hair trailed the guards, shouting, “Don’t believe the vermin! They all lie!” Like an actor, he wrapped his fur-trimmed purple robe around his shoulders and struck a pose. To Suzannah his posturing seemed silly, but the boy’s terrified expression sobered her instantly.

While the dark man’s attention was distracted, she crept behind him and plucked the pouch from his belt. Her heart hammered. She slipped the purse under her tunic.

“Thief!” Suzannah froze, but the accusation was directed at the boy. She let out a sigh and tried to disappear, but the square had filled up, closing off escape. With an effort she resisted the urge to fight her way through the multicolored babel. That would draw too much attention. While the constables were busy, she would be safe, so she crouched behind a stout woman to watch.

The man in the feathered cloak, whose purse pressed against her side, approached the boy’s accuser. “Maybe he wouldn’t have to steal if greedy scuts like you’d give him something to eat once in a while, Iskar,” he said. He towered over the other man. “Likely the boy has no parents. You might try helping these children instead of persecuting them!”

Iskar would not back down. “This boy becomes mine, by law, Councilor Nahan, to dispose of as I see fit,” he said. “You wrote the law, after all.” Suzannah stared at the dark man, remembering the bitterness in Papa’s voice when he’d spoken of the edicts passed by the Council of Lords. Gilam’s war with its neighbor Haram had orphaned so many children that the Council had dealt with the problem by passing a law. She had seen six-year olds put on the streets as whores, while others lost hands or were sold into slavery.

“Yes, I did,” Nahan admitted. “But if I’d seen the problems it would cause, I’d never have written it.”

Iskar shrugged. “So I’ll dispose of the creature, and we’ll have one less problem.”

He turned away, the constables dragging the boy after him, but Nahan interposed himself. “What’s it worth to you?” he asked. “I’ll settle it.”

That brought mutters from the crowd. Iskar rubbed his chin, as if thinking things over. The boy watched, not moving.

“Twenty silvers.” Iskar grinned.

Nahan shook his head. “It’s robbery and you know it. But I’ll part with a few coins before I’ll see the boy suffer.” He reached for the pouch, then cried, “I – I’ve misplaced my purse!”

Iskar gave a dry, rattling laugh. “Stolen from you by one of your urchins!” His face hardened. “You’re a wizard. Use your sorcery to find the thief.”

Suzannah stiffened. Lord and Lady! He’ll turn me to a statue!

“You’d like that, wouldn’t you?” Nahan said. “Force me to break my oath, and give you two victims instead of one.” He stayed between Iskar and the boy. “Do nothing with him tonight, Iskar. I’ll get my purse back and —”

“You have til dawn,” Iskar interrupted. “I’ll get something out of him, one way or another. Constables, do your duty.”

Suzannah went limp. It’s him they got, not you! Be thankful! she told herself. You’ll go to bed tonight with both hands and a full belly. She glared at Nahan, who watched the guards haul the screaming boy away like trash. He could have conjured coins from nowhere! Instead, he let Iskar just take the boy!

Now that the guards had gone, the crowd began to break up. Suddenly she could no longer hide from Nahan’s gaze. It’s your fault, not his, she realized. He could have saved the boy if you hadn’t stolen his purse. There’s still time to return it.

But what if Nahan gave her to the constables?

Nahan turned away at last. The girl fingered the bag of coins, trying to think about food and bed, but she kept seeing the boy’s terrified face. What would Iskar do to him? He might spend his life in a mine or a brothel, and it’ll be my fault!

She slumped against the base of a statue. Daylight’s last bright flags were fleeing before the night. The dregs of the crowd were fading into the dark. Cold air punished her face and arms. Her treasured bag of coins became a stone dragging on her heart.

When another constable appeared, she fled into an alley. She paid little heed to where she was going, tumbling headlong over the twisting, turning ways, stumbling over loose paving stones, dodging snowbanks and icy puddles. She finally stopped, panting, under a bronze lantern shaped like a lion’s head, where she decided to count the money. Silver and gold coins rang as she spilled them into her hand. She shook the bag to make sure the last coin had fallen out. A crest worked into the leather would incriminate her; she tossed the bag into a midden and stuffed the coins in her pockets. She decided to find Tarts Street. With so much money, one of the brothel-mistresses would spare her a meal.

But when she looked for a familiar landmark, she recognized nothing. The houses looked strange and forbidding: tall, narrow, with scowling dormer windows in steeply pitched tile roofs.

I’ve taken a wrong turn. She retraced her steps. Torches in sconces shaped like animal heads cast no light on her. A rat skittered away as she turned down a narrow alley. Another sort of vermin would soon take over the nighted streets, and she must get away.

A noise froze her. She saw a man’s form silhouetted in the light from the adjoining street. If she ran, he would see her. But she could not stay where she was.

Two doors down she found a narrow crevasse between two buildings, just wide enough for her to fit if she removed her cloak. The rough stucco scraped her painfully through the thin cotton tunic. If she could force her way through to the other end, she could get away. The sound of footsteps followed her. Frantically she tried to squeeze into the narrow space. The bag of coins seemed to drag her down. She heard the sound of tearing cotton, felt the stucco scrape her skin, but kept moving. She had money to replace the tunic.

Abruptly the passage narrowed. She could go no further.

She tried to push through, but only ripped her tunic more. The coins spilled into the alley with a loud clamor. When she tried to catch them, she got stuck, unable to go forward or back.

The man paused directly adjacent the crevasse. The far end, and safety, might as well have been on top of a mountain. The coins glowed accusingly in the night. Her heart beat madly and she began to cry. She would never get out of here. Or if she did, the man would sell her to a brothel. Lord and Lady, help me! I’ll never steal again!

“Who’s there?”

She stiffened, saw him peer into the crevasse. He reached into the opening, grasped her arm, pulled. Her chin scraped the walls. For a moment, she thought he would not be able to pull her out, but he gave a mighty tug and she tumbled into his arms.

She tried to squirm away. “Let me go!” she cried, struggling. “Let me go!” But the man held both her arms. He kept saying something over and over, a vague murmur drowned out by her terror. Then, a voice seemed to speak directly into her mind, calming, soothing, easing her fear. She quit struggling.

“No one will hurt you, lass,” he said. Cautiously she raised her eyes, then quickly lowered them when she recognized the broad, dark face, the blunt nose, the grey beard.

“Councilor Nahan,” she gasped. He wrapped her in his cloak. The feathers warmed her chilled skin.

“What are you doing on the streets by yourself? Where are your parents?”

She looked away. “I see,” he said, then, noticing the spilled coins, added, “Looks as if you’ve done all right for yourself.”

He reached for the coins. She blurted, “Don’t!”

His eyebrow lifted. “I don’t take what isn’t mine.”

Her face grew hot. She was grateful for the dim light. “I’m sorry.” Conscious of his gaze, she crouched to scoop up the money. The faces on the coins looked like the boy.

“Look, child,” Nahan said. “You shouldn’t be out here at this hour, especially at Festival time.” He laid his dark hand gently on hers. The touch made her stop trembling. “Come to my home for the night. I’ve a large house. I’ll give you a good, hot meal and a safe place to sleep.”

Hunger and cold overcame caution. He doesn’t suspect you, she told herself. And you’ve nowhere else to go. She could keep quiet all night, leave the money in the morning and get out before he awoke. He had til dawn to save the boy.

She picked up the coins, then followed Nahan past houses garlanded for the Festival with evergreen boughs and red berries. Inside, she saw families gathered around the hearths. Like Mama and Papa and me. Her eyes stung.

Nahan stopped before a house that was larger than the rest, with plaster walls trimmed with dark wooden beams. A round window in the door emitted a soft golden glow. As he opened the door, she gasped. The inside of the house seemed larger than the outside. A white marble floor stretched as far as she could see, centered by a long table of dark reddish wood set with candlabra and gold-edged plates. Six matching chairs lined the table, though only two places had been set. A huge writing desk was piled high with books, charts, scrolls and maps, with an orange cat sitting atop the pile, regarding her with a mix of interest and boredom. Threads of gold glimmered in an intricate tapestry of wool on one wall, and an immense stone fireplace commanded the far wall, with a large pig roasting over a spit.

The fourth wall held Suzannah’s gaze. An elaborate mural depicted figures of men and women that seemed to move to and fro like actors in a play. That could not be, she decided. Then the scene changed. She blinked. Rubbed her eyes. It was no illusion; they were moving. A man in a flamboyant hat bowed before a lady on a grand throne; then, two powerful armies struggled over a stretch of muddy ground. She could almost hear the roar of battle; the shouts of the warriors, the screams of the wounded and dying, the thunder of hoofbeats across the plain, the hiss of arrows shot from powerful bows.

“Time to eat.” She jumped when Nahan spoke. Who cooked while he was out? she wondered. Was he a fool, to risk a fire, or had his magic kept things under control?

When he seated her at the table, a silver ewer and two cups appeared. She took a sip, tasted a sweet golden nectar. Nahan set the steaming pig on a large dish decorated with a painting of a lute player. The succulent aroma made the girl’s stomach rumble.

“Did you see the commotion at the bazaar?” Nahan asked. His knife glided through the pork.

Suzannah lowered her eyes. Did he know? Was that why he invited her in? “No.”

Nahan seemed not to notice her unease. “They caught a boy stealing a purse.” He piled meat on her plate and added colcannon from a kettle. “Interesting how coincidences happen. Iskar’s purse is stolen, and when I try to make up his loss, I find my purse gone.”

Suzannah’s hands twisted the hem of her tunic. She stared at her plate. Mama used to make colcannon at Festival time. She breathed the fragrance of the potatoes and cabbage, stirred it with her fork, ate some, but her appetite was fading. On the magic mural, she saw Iskar drag the boy pickpocket to a chopping block where a man with a scimitar waited. In her mind Suzannah could hear the boy’s screams.

The food turned sour in her stomach. She heard her fork clatter to the floor.

Nahan frowned. “Is something wrong?”

Iskar tied the boy’s arm to the block. She could not look away. Was she seeing what was happening now? Or was it some magic trick? Maybe it wasn’t too late. But if I tell him now, it could be me getting my hand chopped off.

She stared at her plate. Thought of Mama, who’d cleaned stables so she could eat colcannon. Of Papa, who’d told her stories of Donall Truthsayer. They’d not let someone chop her hands off. But they’d not want to see the boy suffer that fate, either.

There was only one choice. It could not wait til morning. In a small voice, she said, “I took your purse. I still have the money. Maybe you can still help him.”

She felt herself shrink under Nahan’s gaze. “You understand what this means?”

She bowed her head, said nothing.

He wiped his lips with a silk napkin and stood up, his shadow blotting out the light. “You are mine, to do with as I see fit.”

She whimpered, seeing Iskar’s greedy face, then fell to her knees. “Please, sir, I was hungry! Don’t cut my hands off! Please! I won’t ever steal again! Please don’t hurt me!”

She clasped her hands around his ankles and buried her face in the hem of his robe.

“Finish your supper,” he said.

“I’m not hungry.”

He nodded. “Come with me.” He took her hand. Not understanding why, she let him lead her down a corridor to a door carved with runic characters. He opened the door and she entered.

When she heard the click of the lock, she realized he hadn’t come in with her. She began pounding at the door. “Let me out!” There was no sound from outside.

She threw herself at the door, clawed at it, twisted and pulled the knob, tried to force her fingers under the jamb. “Let me out!” she screamed. Tears blurred her vision. “Mama, Papa, help! I gave the money back! Don’t let him cut my hands off!”

There was enough light to show her that the chamber was bare. No furniture, no rugs, not even a window. No escape. She huddled in a corner, hugging her knees to her chest, seeing the scimitar cut off the boy’s hand, over and over.

Eventualy, the door reopened. She hid her face behind her knees. He crouched before her, between her and the door.

“He’s gone.” His voice was grim. “Iskar sold him.”

Suzannah whimpered. Terror left her empty, drained. Nahan said, “I should have known better!”

It’s my fault, she thought. I stole his purse.

Nahan went on, “When I proposed that law, I thought it would force people to take action. I thought if they had to face the tragedy of our children, they would correct it.” He sighed. “I have much to learn.”

The girl found it hard to breathe. “What are you going to do?”

She felt him lift her chin. His face was somber. “He’s gone,” he repeated.

“I’m sorry!” Suzannah sobbed. “It’s my fault!”

“It’s not your fault,” he said. “Iskar sold him. Five minutes after I left the bazaar.”

“But I —”

Nahan touched a finger to the girl’s lips. “You were hungry. You’re not a god. How could you know what would happen?” He laid his hands on her shoulders. “I knew you took my money.” She stared at him. He said, “I could have forced you to return it. But I felt you would do so yourself. I had no right to choose for you. That decision had to be yours.

“That makes me more responsible than you for what happened. So now we face a decision: What to do with you.”

Suzannah looked beyond him to the open door.

“It’s a hard life on the streets,” he said.

“I manage.”

“How long do you think you could ‘manage’ out there? How long could you avoid the constables? Next time, it could be you caught picking a pocket. What then?”

She shrugged. “I won’t get caught.”

“I can’t let you risk that.” She protested, but he interrupted. “I lost him. I don’t want to lose you. Let me give you a home. You’d never go hungry again. Would you like that?”

It took her a long time to ask, “Why would you do that?”

“It’s said, ‘When the student is ready, the teacher will come into his life.'”

She made a face. “You’re going to teach me?”

Why was he laughing? “Did I not say I had much to learn?” he said. “I’d hoped you might teach me, child.”

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