Consideration

Literally everything about this is illegal, Ezryn thought as she studied the graffiti outside the Temple law enforcement building. Dane was late. Very unbecoming an Officer of Civility. High Rule 14: Respect Other People’s Time. Right there, in the Temple constitution. But Officer Dane Ray played fast and loose with the rules.

Then, she heard footsteps in the night. She wiggled her hip to feel the reassuring presence of the two-bullet derringer she kept strapped to it. A tall man in a tan trench coat and gray fedora stepped into the circle of light cast on the brick walkway next to her. It was Brown Day in Thank You City. So the tan coat matched, but the gray was a touch scandalous. The man tipped the brim up and grinned at her. Dane. Greatlady Post but he was attractive.

“Ezryn Jenn,” His smile grew as he spoke to her. “I’m delighted to see you.”

“High Rule 14,” she said. Her voice squeaking.

“I apologize,” he sounded sincere, yet unchastised. As though he felt no guilt about violating a High Rule. Sometimes Ezryn felt relieved she’d ended their relationship. Dane seemed to care less and less for The Rules.

“Have you seen this … lawbreakery?” She gestured at the graffiti list of anti-temple sentiments. They claimed the Temple rules violated the soul of courtesy. Heresy.

“The Theses? They’re peppered all around the city. Also Please City and You’re Welcome Town. So?”

“So they’re not only in outright opposition to Temple teachings, they’re breaking High Rule 15: Respect Other People’s Space.”

“Hmm. Ez, you didn’t ask to see me after two years to talk about some words on a wall.”

“No.” She sighed. He knew her too well. “Dane, I’m being promoted. I’ve been ordained by His Highship to the Inquisitor position.”

“Wowzers!” She smiled at his nerdy exclamation. “I knew you’d make it, Ez.”

“The Master Inquisitor position.” She let the other shoe drop. And Dane’s jaw dropped.

“What, you’ll be one of the Twelve?

She nodded. The Twelve Master Inquisitors were the arbiters of the Law of the Land. They determined whether new laws were in keeping with the Twenty Five High Rules of Politeness. Keepers of the soul of courtesy. Legal arm of the Temple.

“So, that means you’re leaving Thank You City for the Capital of Civility?” he asked. She nodded.

“Yes, it’s what I came to tell you,” she said. “That door you left open for me, well, you can close it.” Make room for someone else, she thought with a stab of regret.

When she’d turned him down, she’d felt like she’d pushed the Light of God outside of her own reach. She had to keep being good and punishing the uncivil to earn back that Light. It was beyond her why Dane of all people most eminated that Light.

“Well, I’ll think about that,” he said. “But Ez, how did you make it so high?” His face was pale, almost frightened-looking.

“I’m close to bringing down a ring of Dens. My research found a whole network and we’re tightening the noose soon.”

The Dens of Iniquity were hidden speakeasies where citizens gathered to be rude. To not pass the salt. To wear mismatched colors and argue. To overdrink and overeat. To speak loudly and interrupt one another and all the things that made Ezryn’s skin crawl.

There were darker dens, too, where harm was done. Dogfights and worse. These latter dens existed because weak people slipped down the ethical slope from the former, more benign-seeming Dens.  Fools thought mere rudeness could not be true evil. Ezryn knew better. Rudeness corrupted. It must be stamped out early.

 She looked up at Dane. He was nodding.

“So you’ve been the big boss all along,” he said. “I should have guessed.”

“What do you mean?”

“Ez, since you left, I thought about what you said. My lack of ambition and how it demonstrated low fervor regarding the High Rules.”

Ezryn winced. Those were her father’s words. When Dane had asked to court her, he’d given his resume to her father as proof of his suitability. Ezryn’s father disapproved of a simple, Temple beat officer. Not devout enough. The ultimate choice was Ezryn’s, but Respect Your Elders carried much weight in her mind.

“I remember,” she said.

“Well, I’ve been promoted too. I’m under cover in one of those Dens.”

The news hit her like a cart drawn by draft horses.

“But that’s so brave! Only our finest go there! How did you …” She trailed off, then looked down, embarrassed by her implied insult.

But self-deprecating Dane laughed.

“Yeah. It turns out that being a sloppy officer made some of the denfolk more comfortable around me. So my contacts in low places are really to thank for landing me the job.”

She nodded. That made sense.  A sudden, desperate plan whirled together in her head. Father would approve now. If he knew what Dane had risked and accomplished for the Temple… Dane was the kindest person she knew. Her father’s approval meant she was still good. But Dane could make her happy. Maybe she could be both good and happy?

“Dane, when we bring the Dens down, you could update your resume. Your work wouldn’t be classified anymore…”

He looked at her, dazzling joy lighting his face. Then something sly took its place.

“Hey boss lady, you wanna see one of the Dens?”

“What?! No. I couldn’t go into one. They’re corrupting.”

“So, I’m corrupted?” He grinned.

“Well. That’s different. You have to go in. It’s a sacrifice you make.”

“You should see a Den,” he said seriously. “Really see what they’re about. You’re going to be a keeper of the High Rules so you need to see what it looks like when the little rules get broken.”

She hesitated. What he said made good sense, but childhood warnings to give evil a wide berth whispered in her ear. When she was a child, her father had made sure she’d followed the rules and kept them in her heart. She once sassed her father and had been sent away to her room for the rest of the day—meals and bathroom breaks included. To this day, even proximity to rudeness caused a panic in her chest.

“Don’t worry,” Dane said. “I’ll tell you if I think you’re becoming corrupted.” He grinned at her and his smile was light in the darkness. Ezryn blushed.

“Well, you wouldn’t know, would you? Being so corrupt yourself.”

He shrugged, still smiling.

“All right. Let’s go.”

***

He’d taken her hand right then and headed straight for the Den. They’d been walking in silence for about ten minutes. Ezryn had expected to have time to prepare. To at least change her clothes into something more criminal looking. Dane hadn’t even given her time to inform her secretary where she was going in case things went badly. But she hadn’t wanted to pull her hand from Dane’s to do any of these things.

They’d walked perhaps half a mile from the Temple law enforcement building into a normal-looking part of the downtown neighborhood. They passed grocer’s awnings—food all locked away at this late hour—and night café’s with one or two populated tables.

Mostly, Ezryn kept a cool head. Alert, observant, and neutral. But she felt an occasional unprofessional thrill, both at the clandestine errand she was on and at the warm feeling of Dane’s hand as their boots padded on the brick walkways. It felt like walking their old beat back when they were simple Temple Officers in their early 20’s.

“Here we are,” said Dane.

“Where?” Ezryn looked around.

They’d stopped in a Square, the intersection of two walkways not wide enough for horse cart traffic. A Town Crier billboard at the center held information for citizens. Today was Brown Clothes Day. Tomorrow would be Blue Clothes Day. It was important that the citizenry not create an eyesore with clashing clothing. A list of public events and upcoming rudeness trials. A list of the most common courtesy complaints in the area (loud children, insufficiently groomed cart horses are an eyesore, someone’s pet cat is at large and eating potted plants). Any news that might help citizens live well with one another.

At the Square’s corners were a bakery, a branch of the Temple Kid’s Scouts, a barber, and a Mind Your Manners service. You could hire them to keep track of your appointments and owed thank-yous and such.

Most busy people needed to hire a Mind Your Manners, but Ezryn was so driven to politeness that she never had. She had a deep-seeded politeness meter and always remembered to send punctual thank- yous and well wishes. Her father had canceled her fifth birthday party because she forgot to thank her aunt for an early birthday gift.

Nothing in the Square looked like a Den of Iniquity.

“Well-hidden, eh?” Dane said.

“I would never have guessed this little square held a Den!”

“Look closely. The Town Crier billboard has no graffiti. That’s really telling.”

It was true. The Theses scrawl littered an upsetting number of public postings and city walls. It was lacking here.

“It’s pretty short-sighted of them,” Dane said. “In trying to look on the up-and-up, they make themselves obvious. I was going to point it out to them. But then I heard this Den was going down soon anyway.”

She squinted at him. He was clever. In a sneaky way. Dane pulled her down a set of stairs leading to the basement of the Temple Scouts building and opened a black painted door. He ushered her into an entryway tunnel with a second door at the end. He swung the outside door shut and paused as their eyes adjusted to the dark.

The walls were dark brown and dimly lit by one flickering gas lamp above. The door at the opposite end had a peephole and Ezryn could hear music on the other side. It was an exciting kind of music. She couldn’t be sure, of course, never having listened to the stuff, but she guessed it was one of the banned types of music.

Dane pushed a little button on the wall by the peephole door and a red light bulb came on above him. The peephole slot slid open and a pair of large bloodshot eyes peered out under fuzzy eyebrows.

“What’s the password? Oh it’s you,” a deep voice said. And the door swung open inward.

Ezryn was hit with a wave of discordant perfumes and colognes. Personal scents were banned in Thank You City on the grounds that they could trigger allergies or nausea. Ezryn had obeyed. But she hadn’t understood the rule until now. People truly need checks on their behavior, she thought.

The inside looked as tackily ostentatious as it smelled. Tables were lit by mismatched Tiffany ceiling lamps. The chairs around them were a hodgepodge of chez lounges, recliners, and beanbag chairs. Ezryn found it ridiculous that these degenerate people found comfort in such assaults on the senses.

There was a bar. Ezryn wondered if it served intoxicating beverages. Then she saw the dance floor. The way the people danced made Ezryn sure the bar served intoxicating beverages. Disgusting.

“Let’s get a table.” Dane cupped her shoulders gently but firmly and steered her out of the doorway. She blushed. She’d probably been gawping. How much of his undercover work could I undo by accident?

“I should never have agreed to come,” she whispered with panic rising inside her as they sat at a table lit by an ugly green glass lamp. It had brass cherubs tangled in brass ivy at its base.

“You need to see this,” Dane said.

“But your work!”

“Is coming to a close. These denfolk don’t know it, but your operation is days away from shutting them down. Then it’s community service or the sanitariums for all, depending on level of involvement. Relax.” He smiled and leaned back on the lounge.  “Breathe this in, if you can stand the perfume. You’ve orchestrated the biggest Iniquity bust in our generation. This will all soon be the past. Take a good look. High Rule 1: Pay Attention and Listen.”

Ezryn took a deep breath. Suppressing a cough from the perfume, she looked around. Everywhere laws were being violated. People wore clashing colors. There was burping, spitting, farting, and smoking. All illegal to do proudly. You had to at least try to find privacy for these activities. But these were only small law violations. The laws that she’d be judging for conformity with the High Rules as a Master Inquisitor.

The worst of it was that High Rules were being broken. Two men argued loudly, violating High Rule 12: Be Agreeable. The body language of two patrons led her to think that High Rule 9: Respect Even a Subtle ‘No’ was being ignored. The gyrating on the dance floor left High Rule 15: Respect Other People’s Space behind in the dust. And she saw a child about 6 or 7 years old bouncing back and forth between two couches, with her parents laughing and smiling fondly at her. High Rule 13: Keep the Volume Down flouted right there.

“Disgusting,” she said.

“Take another look,” Dane said. There was a funny expression on his face. “But this time keep in mind High Rule 3: Think the Best.”

“The best? Of denfolk?”

Dane nodded.

“There, the arguers. You probably noticed them?” He asked. She nodded. “Well, maybe they’re not being agreeable. But they’re arguing because they care about the topic. High Rule 17: Assert Yourself. It’s important not to let people run over you. Because you deserve courtesy too.”

She threw him a skeptical look

“It’s loud in here. But High Rule 5 is Be Inclusive. Many of the people here are misfits out there. They find belonging here. Here they can be loud and let loose and not worry about harming someone with discourtesy.”

“Dane, what you’re saying is…bordering on heretical.”

He took one of her hands. “Look at that child. Really look. Our child would be like that. Not punished for doing childish things. Not valued only as far as her behavior conforms to a set of rules. Just a loved child.”

She looked at him. The panic rose in her again. She wanted to believe him, to accept what he said. But it was bad. It was wrong. It would leave her alone in a sparse, cool room. Not hit or yelled at, but disapproved of, bad, and unacceptable.

“Some Dens are horrible,” he said. “But most are like this one. Inclusive. Assertive. Thinking the Best. We do break many of the High Rules here. But the soul of the High Rules is heartfelt respect for our fellow human beings. We must imagine how another is feeling and relate to how we would feel in their place. Consideration is the moral application of imagination.

“The Temple rules remove our need to imagine and instead tell us what to do to be good. The faith of the Temple is dead. Only here in the Dens, where the small rules are purposefully broken can the High Rules live.”

Ezryn looked up. The room full of denfolk was watching their table.

“You’re not undercover,” she said suddenly, realizing.

“I am. Just…undercover in the Temple Police. Here, I’m the Den Leader.”

She stood, about to fumble for the derringer at her hip. It would be useless. Only two bullets with so many against her.

“You’re going to kill me?” she asked.

“No. I knew you were bringing us down. Nothing I can do. I wanted you to see what could be for your children. What should have been for you. You’re the next Master Inquisitor. I wanted you to have all the information you need to do your job.”

The man with the eyebrows moved toward her menacingly.

“She’s going to turn us in. And we’re just letting her go?”

“We’re already turned in,” Dane said. “This is a pretty tame Den. Most of us will get community service.”

“But not you, Dane,” said Eyebrows.

“No,” Ezryn said, her voice cracking. “No, it’s retraining at the sanitariums for all Den Leaders. No exceptions.” Her throat had gone dry. All his Light would be snuffed. His body would live. But Dane…

“Get out, Lady,” Eyebrows barked.

“You’d better go,” Dane said as he got up and opened the door. “You’ll be safe. I only wanted you to see.”

Ezryn stood and backed out the door, keeping her eyes on the angry-looking denfolk. She glanced at Dane, a smile on his face. Then she turned and fled into the night.

***

Ezryn looked across the table at Dane. He was wearing a strait jacket with red letters across the chest that read ‘for my safety and the safety of all around me.’ No one should think the Temple was overly punitive with its inmates. Only safety conscious.

The clock on the wall behind Dane ticked away the last five minutes until his first retraining treatment. Dane looked calm. Peaceful. Eryn glanced at the mirrored wall in the little white room. There were dark circles under her eyes. Her skin was too pale and her hair was frazzled and showing gray.

Dane’s trial had taken nine months, during which Ezryn had taken her oath as Master Inquisitor. She’d testified against him. Key witness. How could she not? He’d brought her to the den and told her he was its leader. At the trial, she’d wished they were spouses. She wouldn’t have been obliged to share her testimony and seal his fate if she’d said yes to him those years ago.

He’d forgiven her, of course. Damn him.

“So,” she said. “You’re getting the treatment.”

“I’d rather not,” he said, smiling a little. “Any chance of a pardon?”

She shook her head.

Quietly, she said, “I tried everything.”

Dane nodded and let out a small sigh.

“I’ve lost you,” she said in her quietest voice. “But you’ve won me.”

“Oh?”

“Every law that comes across my desk. The little anti-potpourri laws, the wipe your shoes ordinances. The punishments that do not fit the crimes. You are right. Consideration is dead when it’s forced. I’ll have you and your Den in my mind as I do my job.”

Dane smiled. His bright smile, full of Light. Brightest before…

“You always wanted to help people be good to one another,” she said. “It’s what I want now. Not just following the rules. But living them.”

“I could never do it large scale, you know,” he said. “Just here and there in my own little way. You, however, are a woman who can change the world.”

“So you spent yourself to get to me?”

Two orderlies entered the room.

“Mr. Dane Ray?” said the larger of them. “It’s time.”

“Not intentionally,” Dane said, standing. He rose awkwardly in the strait jacket and allowed the orderlies to grab him by his shoulders. “But, well, I guess that was one way of doing it.”

When they left, the door closed behind them. But Ezryn felt a small Light inside her flicker on. She closed her eyes and willed the flame to grow.

 

 

 

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