Common Knowledge

A. E. Decker


The highwayman waited in a copse near the foot of Trilby Bridge. Overhead, a half-moon rode the star-flecked darkness, glinting like a coin dropped between cobbles. Tapping a finger against his saddle, the highwayman sang a soft counterpoint to the brook’s gentle ripple. He loved the velvet tranquility of these moments; the open sky and the music of the water.

Rattle, clomp, creak.

The highwayman broke off his song. The noise came again, drowning the brook’s susurrus: clop, clatter, snort. A carriage, clanking its way towards Trilby Bridge. Sighing, the highwayman knotted a black scarf over his face then patted his steed’s shoulder.

“Let’s get this over with,” he said. “Mother’s bound to chide as is.”

***

“Stand and deliver,” cried the highwayman.

The driver halted the carriage instantly. As the highwayman rode past, he sat stock-still on the box, smiling the smug smile of one whose worldly goods are not at stake. The highwayman gave him a polite nod before tapping his pistol against the carriage door. A man’s florid face, framed by a grubby peruke, peered through the curtains.

“Your money,” said the highwayman, leveling his pistol.

Half a minute ticked past. “Shouldn’t it be ‘your money or your life’?”

The highwayman shrugged. “I usually leave out the second option, since nobody ever chooses it.” He waggled the pistol. “Your money, sir.”

But the man’s gaze listed downward. “Damn me,” he said. “You’re riding a unicorn.” He guffawed.

The highwayman’s lips tightened. “A black unicorn,” he qualified, as if it weren’t perfectly obvious, as if any twit with half a brain would set about robbing people at night on a glowingly white steed.

“A unicorn!” The thwap of a meaty palm slapping a fleshy thigh echoed from inside the carriage. “Tell me, lad, are the rumors true?” He leered. “Can you only ride a unicorn if you’re a—”

Sighing, the highwayman reversed his grip on his pistol and swung it in an arc. Thunk. The florid man’s eyes rolled up in their sockets. The highwayman raided his pockets, tipped his hat to the still-smirking driver, and clucked to his steed.

“That,” said the unicorn as they escaped across the heath, “was more annoying than necessary.”

“Yes.” The highwayman didn’t enjoy robbing folk, and not only because he could swing for it. But when your mother was a witch, it was wisest to bring her what she wanted, no matter the cost.

“Oh, Shay,” said his mother when he presented the sandalwood oil and thirteen grams of dried bees she’d requested earlier that morning. Reproachfully, straightening up from the cauldron she’d been stirring. Steam-damp hair fell over her cheeks.

The bitter-sharp fragrance of rosin teased Shay’s nostrils. His eyes strayed to his fiddle, waiting on the corner table. He hadn’t found time to play in weeks.

Thump. Shay jumped, his gaze returning to his mother as she threw the parcel onto her workbench and knuckled her fists against her hips. “When will you bring me what I need?” she demanded.

Shay stifled a groan. Last night’s earnings hadn’t purchased half the items she’d requested, let alone the most expensive ones. Where on earth—or, more to the point, in the town of Galding—was he going to find a ruby the size of a ha’penny?

His mother’s stare no longer fixed him. She stared out the window instead, to the empty lane, eyes fierce and wild and a more than a little sad. Shay glanced at his fiddle, sighed, then took up his tricorne.

***

The depths some folk would plummet to protect their valuables appalled Shay. Underwear was a horrifyingly popular spot for secreting jewelry. Others stuffed their cheeks with banknotes until they resembled chipmunks. And then there was the enterprising gentleman who, with Shay’s pistol pointed at his face, removed his signet ring and shoved it up his own left nostril

The trials of the highwayman lifestyle, Shay reflected while escaping across Fafner Downs after an especially aggravating heist. His latest victim had dropped a handful of guineas down his breeches, thrust out his crotch as if daring Shay to delve for them, and exclaimed “Crikey!”

Of all the stupid words. What did it even mean? He’d had a stupid mustache too—if it was a mustache. Shay preferred to believe that a caterpillar had died on his upper lip.

“You’re quiet tonight,” observed the unicorn.

“Just wondering why people always snigger when they see I’m riding you,” said Shay.

“Look at it from their perspective,” said the unicorn. Strands of his long mane flicked Shay’s wrists. “You’re a highwayman. A romantic figure, flourishing a cocked pistol while mounted on a beast crowned with a long, thrusting—”

“All right,” said Shay, cheeks hot. “Don’t drive the point home.”

“Actually, that’s exactly—”

“Don’t make the obvious joke either.”

They trotted in silence for a while. “So their sniggering isn’t surprising,” said the unicorn. “Knowing what everyone knows about unicorns, that is.”

“I suppose not,” said Shay. “Knowing what everyone knows.” Digging a hand into the pocket of his long coat, he brought out the evening’s takings. Enough to purchase the white raven’s feather and a pinch of saffron. But that left the mandrake, the speckled snakeskin, and the—

Where on earth, or out of it, was he going to find a ruby the size of a ha’penny? Did it even matter? This morning he’d brought his mother the pint of cream from a golden cow and she’d dropped the pestle in the mortar and brushed her hand across her eyes.

“Oh, Shay,” she’d said. “Do you even know what I need?”

Well, should he ever find a ha’penny-sized ruby, he’d better have the clink to purchase it. He gauged the sky. Not quite midnight; there might yet be prey about. “Let’s try the bridge,” he said, patting the unicorn. Trilby Bridge was his favorite, if not most lucrative, spot, with the water rippling like a trill of music beneath its graceful arch. Music, he thought wistfully. His fiddle would need tuning by now.

Several yards from their usual copse, the unicorn stopped. “What is it?” asked Shay.

“Somebody’s there.”

Shay peered through the interlocked branches. Someone indeed stood at the foot of the bridge. A smallish someone, shrouded in a black cloak, one foot tapping in a beam of moonlight. A trap? Shay scanned the bushes lining the road. He wasn’t too worried. For all people supposedly “knew” about unicorns, it sure surprised them when his mount left pursuers’ horses gasping in the dust.

No tell-tale snorts or clinking of bridles. He focused on the tapping foot, encased in a green silk boot. An heiress waiting to elope with her beau, perhaps? No matter. Shay drew his pistol from his belt. Anyone who could afford silk boots could—

Braaattzzt!

Shay glared back just as the unicorn’s tail lowered. “Sorry,” said the unicorn. “Shouldn’t have eaten those green apples.”

“I hear you, highwayman,” called a voice from the vicinity of the bridge. A young lady’s voice, sweet as cream with a sprinkle of nutmeg on top. “Stand and deliver.”

So much for ambushing his quarry.

“I will be most cross if you don’t emerge,” said the young lady. A pause. “I have a pistol.”

Shay cleared his throat. “Mightn’t that inspire me to flee rather than approach?” he called.

“Oh.” Her foot stilled. “Well, sorry. I’m not accustomed to nefarious activities.” Her hood fell back, revealing a flow of red-gold hair, bright as new copper. Shay stared, enthralled. “All right, I won’t shoot. Just come out, please, damn you.”

Shay guided the unicorn onto the road. Moonlight revealed her pale oval face with a spattering of freckles across her nose. Like a spray of gold dust, thought Shay. I’d like to kiss—count!—each one.

The unicorn shook its mane and his mind cleared. Somewhat. “What do you want with me?” he asked, forcing a deep, gravelly tone.

“With you?” said the young lady. Even her grimace resembled a marble angel’s. “Not a thing. It’s your unicorn.”

That threw him. “My unicorn?” he asked, his voice reverting to its usual lilt.

“Don’t parrot me.” Her foot resumed tapping. “Might I borrow your unicorn for one night?”

Shay studied her. The folds of her black cloak allowed glimpses of a slim-yet-curvy figure swathed in green silk. She did carry a pistol, but apparently hadn’t noticed that she’d failed to cock it.

“Why?” asked Shay.

“I needn’t tell you that.”

“True.” Shay tipped his tricorne. “Come along, George.” He clucked to the unicorn. The young lady’s jaw dropped as they passed her, making for the arch of Trilby Bridge. Shay counted George’s steps. Fortunately, there were only five; he didn’t think he could bear many more.

“Wait!” she cried, and he reined in the unicorn instantly. “I need my father to see me ride a unicorn.”

Shay turned. “Again, why?”

The words spilled out in a rush. “I am Amelia Lacewood, heiress to Swardy Manor. Last week I went riding in Lord Bertie Berkenshire’s coach. It broke an axle and we were forced to spend the night in an inn and now… Ooh!” She stamped a foot. “Father believes I’m ruined. He insists I marry Lord Berkenshire this Friday.” She scrubbed an arm over her face. “I considered throwing myself from the roof. But then I recalled stories of a highwayman who rides a unicorn and I thought—well, you know what they say about unicorns.”

“That they are symbol of grace and purity, granted powers to render poisoned waters potable and heal sickness?” said Shay.

Amelia shut her mouth after a moment. “Actually, I was referring to the thing everyone knows about them. You’re an odd sort of highwayman, aren’t you?” Her chin lifted. “Remove your mask.”

Shay debated only briefly before pulling down the scarf.

“Why, you’re—” Her pale cheeks bloomed.

“What?”

“Young,” she said and stared ferociously at the brook.

Shay’s heart did a pirouette. “Very well,” he said. “You may borrow my unicorn.”

The unicorn coughed and Shay remembered himself. “For a price,” he added.

“Name it,” she said, folding her arms under her bosom.

The reins slipped between Shay’s suddenly sweaty fingers. “You shouldn’t say that. I mean, I could ask—” He couldn’t finish. His face burned.

Her cheeks reddened too, but her chin rose higher. “You won’t. You couldn’t ride your unicorn if you did.”

It was a fair piece of logic, given the common knowledge concerning unicorns. It wouldn’t be right anyway. Shay cast about for another prize. “I don’t suppose you own a ruby the size of a ha’penny?” he jested.

“Why, yes.”

He stared.

“My father does, anyway. It’s part of a necklace he gave to my mother on their wedding day. But I don’t think he wishes to see it again, not since she died.” Amelia gazed out over the brook, rubbing her arms. “He misses her so.”

“She’s dead? I’m so sorry. How—”

“She was bludgeoned by a swan.”

“Uh.”

“She was trying to feed it a rock cake.”

“Ah.”

“And got too close to the nest.”

“Oh.”

“They’re vicious creatures, apparently.”

“Huh.” And they seemed so serene. Now he’d never be able to look at one without picturing a snake-necked killer.

“So the ruby’s yours if you want it.” Her eyes, summer blue with lashes like black feathers, met his. “Can we go show my father now?”

“Now? Oh—yes. How about it, George?”

The unicorn’s flank rippled in a shrug. “Fine with me.”

Amelia jumped. “It talks?”

“Of course he talks. He’s a unicorn.” Shay raised an eyebrow as he offered her a hand. “Surely everyone knows that about them.”

Amelia’s chin went up, but she took his hand and swung into the saddle behind him. The clout she gave him with the pistol might have been accidental.

“Ow! Careful with that!”

She sniffed. “No common thief gives me orders.”

“Sorry, I’m sure, miss,” he muttered, trying to tamp down his pulse when she wrapped her arms around him for balance. George didn’t need directions. Everyone in Galding knew where Swardy Manor lay: the biggest pile of red bricks, ivy, and half-columns in the swanky west side of town.

Half a mile passed, silent save for the three-beat rhythm of George’s hooves. Then one of Amelia’s hands curled over Shay’s shoulder, almost tentatively. She’d tucked the pistol away too. “George?” she asked.

Shay decided to forgive her. “It’s what I call him.”

George snorted. He generally avoided speaking while cantering for fear of swallowing insects.

“What’s his actual name?” asked Amelia.

“Well, you click your tongue then blow out through your nose while simultaneously making a high-pitched ‘eee’ and shaking your head. I don’t recommend trying to pronounce it; you’ll get snot everywhere.”

“Goodness,” she said. “And what does it mean?”

“Something like ‘George,’ apparently. It’s a common name among unicorns.”

“How did you meet him?”

“I was fiddling in the woods. I mean, playing the fiddle,” he clarified quickly. “He walked out from between two poplars and settled down to listen. We both love music, see. One day,” he said, enjoying the taste of the words, often dreamed, but never before spoken aloud, “I’ll live in a city by the sea, playing my fiddle as the waves wash the sand.”

George’s hooves beat out a full measure against the road. Then: “Why don’t you earn an honest keep instead of robbing people?” she asked.

“I can’t. Not until I bring my mother that ruby.”

“Pooh to your mother. Be a man.”

“My mother’s a witch. You don’t say ‘pooh’ to witches, even when they’re your mother.”

Her gasp warmed his ear. “A witch? Do you mean the witch of Habblecott Lane?”

Oh, damn. What an idiot he’d been, letting his identity slip so easily. Maybe she won’t figure it out, he thought, but she was already speaking again.

“Mistress Iwan, that’s her name. So you’re her son, Shay?”

She could have me hanged now, if she wanted. “Yes, I’m Shay,” he said, absurdly happy. “Pleased to meet you, Miss Lacewood.” He bowed in the saddle.

Two measures of hoof beats. Then, she mimed a curtsey. “Pleased to make your acquaintance, Mr. Iwan.” Her arms clasped his waist again. “Why does your mother need a ruby?”

“It’s the final component for the spell she’s concocting.” He hoped it was the final component, at least.

“What kind of spell?”

“I believe it’s a spell for happiness.” Ironic that, considering how miserable its creation was making him.

Up ahead, gray and sooty in the moonlight, the great cube of Swardy Manor loomed, surrounded by grass trimmed to a half-inch and bushes clipped into perfect spheres, like giant toffee apples stuck into the ground.

“A spell,” said Ameila. She shifted against his back. “If I could do magic, I’d grow a pair of wings and fly away from Galding. Perhaps I’d find happiness in your city by the sea.”

This had never occurred to Shay. “You’re not happy?” he asked as they clopped up Swardy Manor’s beech-lined drive.

“Happy?” Her voice hit a perfect high G of horror. “With every middle-aged rake and chinless second son from here to Hubblesworth wooing me? Why, Lord Berkenshire’s the prize calf among them, and he has a horrid mustache and says ‘Crikey’ all the time.”

George froze, one hoof poised inches from the white gravel.

“‘Crikey.’ What does that even—is something wrong?” She tugged at his arm. “You’ve gone very still. Gads, your hair’s wavy. I could curl it about my finger.”

Shay cleared his throat. “No,” he said, carefully. “Nothing’s wrong. We will continue up the drive, your father will watch you ride George, and you will absolutely never marry that bast—Lord Berkenshire on Friday. Right, George?”

George licked his lips. “Right.” He set the hoof down.

They continued up the drive. A coach was drawn up in front of the wide expanse of marble steps; a hideous contraption, black-and-gold, like a melodramatic bumblebee. Amelia’s arms stiffened around him. Shay stiffened too.

“That’s Lord Berkenshire’s coach,” they said simultaneously.

“You know Lord Berkenshire?” said Amelia.

“I robbed him an hour before I met you,” he whispered, guiding George to the shelter of a spiral-cut shrubbery.

“Good.”

“No, it isn’t.” Shay rubbed his temples. “We must alter our plans.”

“Why?”

“Because if you call to your father to watch you ride a unicorn, Lord Berkenshire will come too, and he might recognize me.”

“Yes, I was going to mention that tying a hanky over the lower half of your face isn’t exactly an impenetrable disguise. Especially when one’s eyes are so pretty a violet as yours.”

His heart fluttered. “Do you really think—”

George coughed. Shay hastily steered his thoughts back on course. “Maybe you could slip inside and get the ruby,” he said. “Then you can slip back out and give it to me. I’ll cut home across Fafner Downs. Give me ten minutes’ start before you call your father out.”

He twisted in the saddle to look at her. She was nodding and biting her lip. “All right?” he asked.

“What about George?”

“Don’t worry about me.” George nibbled the shrubbery. “I can find my own way home after you ride me.”

“Is it all right?” Shay asked again when she remained silent a long minute. “Are you worried about slipping into the house?”

“No, I can do that. I just realized.” Her teeth dug into her lip again. “Everything will return to the way it was before the axle broke.”

“Isn’t that what you want?”

“Oh, it’s all very well for you,” she said in an angry whisper. A tear rolled off her chin and splashed onto his collar. “You have your city by the sea.” She slid off George’s back, lips tight as a knotted ribbon. “I’ll return with the ruby in three minutes.”

What was that about? Shay watched, frowning, as she tiptoed to a side door and vanished inside. Habit then drew his gaze towards Lord Berkenshire’s coach. Lord Berkenshire’s gilded coach. Shay smarted at the memory of the fat handful of guineas he’d dropped down his crotch. “Bet there’s a chest hidden under the cushions,” he said.

“Don’t think about it,” said George through a mouthful of leaves.

“I’m not.” He was. No coachman in sight. Shay’s fingers itched. It would be so easy. And Lord Berkenshire deserved a good robbing.

Shay’s legs ached from riding, so he dismounted to stretch them. Perfectly sensible. Walking stretched them even better. Idly, he closed the distance to the coach by ten feet.

Voices inside the house. Shay strained his ears, trying to make out words while his feet sidled him closer to the coach. His fingertips brushed the latch.

A door creaked. The rapid patter of footsteps followed. Startled, Shay threw himself into the nearest hiding spot: beneath the coach. His belly scraped the raked gravel as footsteps scrunched closer.

“Shay,” hissed a voice, a cream-with-nutmeg voice.

Amelia. Shay sat up and banged his head on the axle. “Ow.”

“Shay?” Amelia’s face appeared in the gap between gravel and coach bottom. “What are you doing down there?”

The axle. Frowning, Shay squinted at it, rubbing his head. “Hey.” He crawled out.

Amelia clutched a gem red as all the wine in the world. Grass, carriage, and drive all took on a rosy hue after looking at it. “Your payment,” she said, offering it.

“Thank you.” Shay held the jewel a while longer than necessary, admiring its cold fire and trying not to calculate how many days’ board it might purchase in a city by the sea. Becoming aware of Amelia’s stare, he hastily stowed it in a pocket. “Were you inside the coach when the axle broke?” he asked.

“No, we were dining at the inn,” said Amelia. “The coachman informed Lord Berkenshire it was broken. Why?”

“Because I know about coaches—part of my job—and neither of those axles have been replaced recently.”

Amelia stared. Every drop of color leeched from her face. “He smiled when the coachman told him about the axle,” she whispered.

Shay wrapped an arm around her shoulders. “Go to your father,” he said. “Tell him—”

Bang. Swardy Manor’s front door slammed open, throwing a rectangle of yellow light over them. “Lord Lacewood,” called a man at the top of the marble steps, “the highwayman’s here now, abducting your daughter.”

“George,” cried Shay, darting towards his steed. But the man lunged down the steps and blocked his way. Two feet of polished steel pressed against Shay’s windpipe. Shay’s gaze travelled the blade’s length to settle on a dead-caterpillar mustache. He tried not to swallow.

George whinnied, pawing the ground. “Stay back, unicorn,” said Lord Berkenshire. The sword bit deeper. “Your rider will live longer.” He laughed. “Long enough to hang, anyway. How pitiful, dying a vir—”

Amelia’s foot came up between Lord Berkenshire’s legs. Something in his groin clanked; he must’ve forgotten a few guineas. His eyes crossed. The sword dropped from his hand.

“You planned it all,” she raged. “You beast!”

A “crikey” might have been blooming on Lord Berkenshire’s lips, but she hit him over the head with the butt of her pistol before it emerged. He crumpled to the ground, emitting small whining noises. Shay grabbed Amelia before she kicked him again.

“You can prove him a liar,” he said. “Ride George.”

“No, you ride him.”

“What? Why?” asked Shay as Amelia woman-handled him onto George’s back.

“Weren’t you listening? My father believes you’re abducting me, so—” She looked up. Shay followed her gaze. High on the roof, a tall man leapt onto the back of some large creature. Its spread wings blotted out the moon.

“That’s a griffin,” said Shay. Surprisingly, his voice didn’t shake.

“Yes, Gina.” Amelia scrambled up behind him. “And that’s Father on her back.”

“You didn’t tell me he had a griffin,” said Shay as the conjoined figures leapt off the roof, descending towards them at an alarming rate.

“I didn’t see a need.” The shadow of the griffin fell across them. Curved beak and wicked claws. “Go, George,” she cried. George leapt forward.

“Head for Mother’s,” added Shay as the griffin swooped. The gust of its passage raised hairs on his head. “This is hardly the way to convince him I’m not abducting you,” he called to Amelia over the rush of wind.

“He must see me riding a unicorn.”

“He’s seen you! Now you can—”

A second swoop tore Shay’s tricorne off his head. He gave up the argument. Ducking low over George’s neck, he urged him to a faster pace. The unicorn’s hooves scraped sparks off the cobbles.

The weight of the ruby burned in Shay’s pocket. At least he could bring his mother what she needed before he fled Galding.

They turned down Habblecott Lane. Lamps glowed in the windows of his mother’s house, waiting at the end. The griffin swooped again and Lord Lacewood jumped off its back, landing neatly on his feet, a drawn sword in one hand.

“Hurry,” Shay told George.

“I am hurryi—phagh! Gah, you made me swallow a fly.”

The house at the end of the lane grew in perspective from a dollhouse to a real, two-storied building, its snowy façade laced with climbing roses. George pulled up, panting, and Shay dragged Amelia off his back and bundled her into the house, Lord Lacewood ten steps behind.

Shay slammed the door. “Mother,” he said, expecting to discover her at the counter, ladle or pestle in hand. Instead, she sat at the table, which was spread with a fine linen cloth and set with silver dishes. Beeswax candles flickered. A heavenly fragrance of saffron, wine, and roast pheasant ennobled the air.

“Mother?” Shay gaped.

The door behind him burst open. Lord Lacewood strode inside, his strong face lined, but handsome. “Unhand my daughter,” he commanded, lifting his sword.

Shay’s mother rose, smiling. She wore her finest dress, the garnet red one. Her glossy black hair showed only the slightest traces of gray as it cascaded over her shoulders. “Finally, Shay,” she said, extending her hand to Lord Lacewood. “You brought me what I need.”

Lord Lacewood met her eyes. His sword’s tip dropped, brushing the braided rug. When he reached out, the air between their fingertips crackled with electricity.

They clasped.

Neither noticed when Shay retrieved his fiddle from the corner table. Amelia waited outside, tears soaking her smile. “I don’t think he’ll be lonely anymore,” she said.

Shay closed the door on the tableau. “I thought she needed this,” he said, taking the ruby from his pocket. Amelia plucked it from his grasp. Before he could protest, she’d slipped back inside, placed the gem in her father’s hand, and folded his fingers around it.

“It was the final ingredient for your mother’s spell, wasn’t it?” she asked, shutting the door behind her.

Yes, and it would set off her gown perfectly, gleaming in the hollow of her throat. But—

“I could’ve lived off that gem for years,” he said.

She swatted his shoulder. “You must become an honest man if you wish me to stay.” Hoisting herself onto George’s back, she sat demurely sidesaddle, her hands folded in her lap.

Shay collected his jaw. “You’re coming with me?”

“It may not be a pair of wings, but riding a black unicorn possesses a certain panache.”

“I’ve always thought so,” said George.

Amelia patted George’s rump in invitation. Shay leapt up behind her and wrapped his arms around her waist. She readjusted his grip.

“Don’t be naughty,” she said, softening the reproof with a peck on his cheek. “You wouldn’t be able to ride George anymore.”

Shay smiled into her hair. No hurry. They’d have time together in the city by the sea. Time, and the happiness promised by his mother’s spell.

Soon enough, he suspected, she’d be delighted to learn—as a few lasses in Galding had—why one should not always trust the common knowledge when it came to unicorns.