Meredith is from the Eastern Shore of the Bay. Carr is from the Western Shore. . . .
This 100,000-word omnibus contains all the current stories in Waterman, a historical fantasy series and retrofuture series inspired by the Chesapeake Bay oyster wars, boarding school rivalries in the 1910s, and 1960s visions of things to come.
Somebody slapped Meredith's head; his House cap, which he had won after twelve terms on the Third House's footer team, fell off and was trampled by a boot. Somebody else tugged at his uniform, announcing that he should be dressed in a servants' uniform, not a students'. He heard cloth rip and had a moment to wonder where, out of his small allowance, he would be able to find the money for a new uniform.
Then someone said, "Watch out! It's the Head!" and everyone fell silent.
Fletcher turned, looking annoyed rather than concerned. While Rudd hated being disturbed, he was unlikely to cane a fellow prefect within the Third House for ragging Meredith. If a prefect from another House had been ragging Meredith, that would have been an entirely different matter, of course; the Third House protected its own against outsiders.
It even protected a student whose status as a master had not yet been determined by the courts.
So Fletcher looked merely annoyed; then his annoyance deepened as he saw which lad the other students had parted to make way for. "Get the bloody blades out of here, Carruthers," he said. "You're in Third House territory. We don't welcome dredgers here."
The Head of the Second House didn't reply immediately. Master M Carruthers (nobody had been able to figure out why he only had an initial for his first name) was generally acknowledged to be the most popular youth in the Upper Seventh. At the beginning of term, there had been competition amongst the younger second-rankers of his House over who should fag for him, even though it was Carruthers's choice to make, not theirs. Meredith could not remember who had won the competition in the end; the decision had been made around the same time that Pembroke decided to have Meredith fag for Rudd. Meredith had been too aghast at the idea of fagging during his Seventh Form – fagging for Rudd, of all people – to pay attention to Second House gossip . . . though in moments of honesty, he had been forced to admit to himself that the competition to serve Master Carruthers had been of some interest to him.
Now Carruthers took a moment to look over the gang. Unlike Pembroke, who would have dealt with such a matter by giving everyone an icy look, there was no expression on the face of the Head of the Second House. Carruthers had always been a difficult young man to read. His voice was also quite bland as he said, "You're disturbing my House with your noise. I have first-rankers studying for their university exams. Indeed," he added in that same bland voice, "I was under the impression that this was also the study period for the Third House's first-rankers. And class time for nearly everyone else." His gaze lingered for a moment on Jeffries, who was beginning to look nervous.
"It's none of your bloody business," Fletcher replied. "This is the Third House; get out of our waters."
"Or we'll fetch the Oyster Navy," giggled someone else, and several more of the students laughed.
Carruthers ignored them. "It's my business if you're disturbing the study time in my House. Fletcher, you're a prefect. If you're not willing to keep order here, I'll have to go to Rudd. He's with Pembroke right now, isn't he?"
Fletcher's face went suddenly blank. Several of the first-rankers shuffled in place, exchanging glances. If there was anything one learned in the Third House, it was that Rudd disliked being disturbed when he was alone with Pembroke. He was inclined to cane any student who knocked on his door during such times. And since Carruthers was the Head of another House and therefore could not be caned by Rudd . . .
"Oh, dwell forever in afterdeath," snarled Fletcher, stepping away. "Come on, fellows. The Head Prefect of the Second House is too dainty to be able to stand a little noise. I guess we'll have to protect his gentle ears."
Carruthers gave the faintest of smiles, saying nothing. Several of the students glanced at each other, and then all of them were laughing, not at Carruthers, but at Fletcher. Everyone there had seen Carruthers on the playing field.
Fletcher looked as though he would explode like a footer ball, but one of the other first-rankers, still laughing, pulled him away. The rest of the crowd dispersed, leaving Meredith kneeling dishevelled on the floor.
He stared up at Master Carruthers. The Head was dressed in his flannels, having evidently been in the process of changing from footer, for his calf-length boots and bare knees were spattered with mud. The mud clung to the fine hairs on his thighs. His jersey was opened two buttons at the top, showing a sheen of sweat in the hollow of his neck.
Hastily, Meredith lowered his eyes, then remembered, too late, that this was as foolish an act as staring. Now warm with confusion, he raised his eyes till he could see Carruthers's face.
Carruthers had an unremarkable face. That was what everyone said. Unlike his father, he was neither handsome nor striking; the first time you passed him on the street, your gaze would glide right over him. His appearance was in no way special—
"You may stand up, if you like."
Meredith found himself on his feet before he knew he had moved. Carruthers's voice always did that to him, on the rare occasions that the Head took passing notice of him. Meredith would have been ashamed of his reaction, except that half the other lads in school had similar tales. Nobody had been able to figure out what magic lay in Carruthers's voice. It wasn't in the wording, for if any other master had spoken his words, those words would have sounded merely polite, almost deferential. Nor did Carruthers speak with a tone of aggression, like Rudd. His voice was . . . it was. . .
"Is that your cap?"
Masterful. That was the word for it. Meredith hastily grabbed his cap from the floor and then, since the cap seemed only a bit dusty, placed it on his head.
"Master . . ." Carruthers made the word into a query.
He swallowed and forced himself not to lower his eyes. "I'm Meredith, sir."
"Master Meredith – yes, of course." And oh, how glorious a happening – there was no mockery in Carruthers's voice as he spoke Meredith's provisional title. "Where is your liege-master? Is he in class?"
"No, sir. My liege-master is Master Pembroke."
There was something in Carruthers's voice that made Meredith dip his eyes again. He felt a flush of shame spread across his face at his action. He wasn't sure where to look. Not down – he knew that much, had known that much since the first week of first form. But staring straight into the eyes of the heir to the Second Landstead would be far too bold. He tried looking halfway up, but that simply left him with a view of the jersey clinging to Carruthers's torso.
"Your arm is scratched. Do you have anyone besides your liege-master who will take care of that for you?"
He could not have said why, at that moment, tears leaked out of the corners of his eyes. He shook his head, hoping that Carruthers would not notice this sign of weakness.
"You'd best come with me, then." Carruthers turned and, without another word, made his way to the door leading out of the Third House.
Meredith actually hesitated a moment, an act that would have earned him amazed stares from any other lad who had received an order from Carruthers. Nobody was in sight to witness his hesitation, though. Feeling like a hooked fish, he hurried after Carruthers.
"Unmarked" is available in Waterman Omnibus.
Dusk Peterson at GLBT Bookshelf.
Love in Dark Settings Press at GLBT Bookshelf.