The rickshaw bumped over a groove. Fazgood leaned close to Calzjha.
“The two of you get to the square. When I come back, we will go talk with Mrs. Cheat-The-General and Captain Doomed.
“Look at that book, Warren. And tell me how it ends.”
The rickshaw stopped and let Calzjha off with his Basket-of-Brumpf. As Calzjha gave one last worried look, and the devoted weasel gave the Earl one last affirmation, Fazgood bade them farewell for the next hour.
The rickshaw whirred away. Calzjha watched, growing smaller, until he was lost in the crowd.
Watching the crowd as he passed, the Earl recited the entire College of Incorrigibles Alumni Praise twice over, and was starting a third round when the rickshaw eased before the wide brick gates of the Garden of Edification. He paid the driver, then removed and carefully folded his apron. He tucked the apron and his cane under his arm, and strolled into the park.
He passed a group of school children in white tunics following their teacher out. A few older people in aprons swept the brick walkways, or stood silent vigil at vendor stands. He wandered ambled around the courtyards, identifying paths towards the exits, locations of tool sheds and the like.
He finally came across a series of aquatic tanks, fenced with a low barrier. He passed a tank with a printed label for “Knighted Frogs”, with frogs slouching on their carp-mounts idling near the viewing glass. The next tank held an “Alpian Mitre Beetle Nest”, which was a great bubble about the size of a human torso, transparent from the trapped air held in place by some marvel of instinctive engineering, the insides of the bubble crawling and flicking with beetlery.
It took some squinting at the glittering water, but finally Fazgood made out a squat, antlered shape drifting on the bottom of the tank.
The crab was a beauty. The moosecrab was about two handspans wide at the shell, and another two worth of legs at each side. From the front of the crab were two thick, flesh-filled antlers.
The crab sat in the shade, plucking and eating unseen items from the bottom with the tips of tapering, serrated pincers.
All I’ll need is a thick blanket to smother those claws. I had heard that the large old ones lose flavor. But how to get my dinner out? Daytime is better; nobody expects thievery under the sun. I’d crack it open now if I could get away with it!
Fazgood looked around. The water in the tank looked to be about shoulder deep. Spring over the rail, jump in the tank, grab the crab. But he restrained himself.
Put it in what? A trunk? A basket for carrying babies? Then walk out of the zoo wearing drenched clothes. No. I’m going to need a distraction.
Perhaps I should have Calzjha perform one of his celebrated illnesses.
He gave an aggrieved sigh at that undertaking.
Calzjha just cannot fall down and be nauseous. He will ask “Which illness shall I do?” And he will need to contract something spectacular. Such as? Heatstroke? Animal hysterias? The Dancing Plarvies?
The Earl trod down a side path to a small stone building without a sign.
The floor of its pen was a sandy bowel about ten strides wide. The sand was mixed with straw and grain, and insects flittered just above the surface. Near the middle of the bowel lay a gray-skinned beast of six cables in length. It had only two great forepaws for limbs; the rest of its body followed in a huge roll that came up to Fazgood’s shoulder in height. The beast’s long head held an unusually stretched mouth like that of a whale’s. Its tiny eyes gave Fazgood a bored once-over.
The Mad Earl smiled. A tremblar! This zoo is comprehensive!
The large mouth opened to show even, ridged plates of baleen. The sand beneath the long grey body trembled, and it glode forward on the strength of the vibrations, mouth open wide. The grain, bugs and dust shook into the air like a cloud. The tremblar settled its head within the cloud, the dust swirling into its mouth. It smacked its lips and belched a shiny mist.
Fazgood rather liked tremblars. They always had a wary, if resigned attitude, and very simple needs.
Back at the plaza, he purchased a seedcone and a sugarcane from the dozing vendor. He took a bite from the seedcone as he walked back, and spent the next moments before the tremblar’s cage sucking molasses and seeds from his teeth. Twisting off the tip of the cone, he tossed it over the fence. The candy landed before the great beast.
The tremblar swayed its mouth and snuffled. The sand shook, the cone bounced up and the morsel sucked away.
The Earl broke off more pieces of the cone and flipped them ahead of the tremblar. The creature trembled the ground and glode smoothly along, following wherever the food landed.
The Mad Earl took up his cane and cracked its tip of on the bricks of the sidewalk, just enough to make the cane splinter along an end. He twisted a sliver from the canetip, then peeled off another thicker sliver.
The Mad Earl slipped over the rail to the cage door and examined the lock. He slipped the slivers in, twisted them and snapped the lock open.
The Earl looked to the tremblar. “Tch! Tch!”
The long grey head turned to the door. The sand beneath it shook and pounded. The tremblar glided around and approached the door. But as it came to the rise before the doorway, the vibrations caused the sandy slope to spill and cascade. The tremblar grunted and puffed, but it could not gain purchase in the sliding sand.
Yes, it can pound anything to pieces as long as it is on a solid footing.
The Earl considered its struggles for a moment. Nodding, the Earl snapped the lock shut and slipped back over the rail.
On his way out of the zoo he inquired of a keeper. “When is feeding time?”
* * *
The thirteenth hour was the hour of plans, thought the Inspector.
In the alcove of the scout headquarters, Varalam the Inspector’s huge Adactoid deputy filled the doorway. Behind, criminals and scouts murmured and scuffed by, their shadows crossing behind the Adactoid’s back, while snatches of plans slipped by in the air, plans for lunches and cullings and retributions.
Varalam said, “A maid at the Shaded Moaltrees told of a suspect who took up studying there early this week. The suspect is the servant of an official from some islands.”
“Why haven’t I seen him?”
“The customary muddied our first search. Customaries cultivate, and sometimes love their gardens too well. The rules say we have to inquire with them first; sometimes they hide some weed they fancy; then they claim misunderstanding; then we can’t prove they’re lying and being poisonous.”
That customary is due for a burglary. I will demand nothing be left but seat cushions.
The Inspector asked the deputy, “Do you know which island this official is from?”
“I do not remember which islands she said, Inspector. Does that matter?”
Mehzadapt was in a foul mood. “Details are always important, deputy! Was he from the Hermitshells? From Abduryne? I need to know what kind of trouble this fellow could stir up! Wring your brains, or I’ll wring them for you.”
The Adactoid’s scarred brow creased more at the invective. He bowed. “You have jarred loose my memory. The maid said he was from the Ijkalla Islands. Those new islands freshening our kingdom.”
“Then they will need to know how things work here in Harmonium.”
Varalam crossed his hands, relaxing at the Inspector’s satisfaction. “The maid also said this official is a hazard. The maid said the official thrashed a couple of scouts at the Amusatorium.”
“How was this so?”
“The scouts were trying an unscheduled robbery.”
“That is possible. Was this official armed?”
The deputy shook its great gray skull. “She said this little skinny reed of a fellow beat them into the infirmary with his bare hands. Do you want us to snatch this Therihe, his assistant?”
“No, we may not have to. If the story about that robbery holds true, that will work for us very well. On behalf of the Magnate of the Scout Brigades, I will want to offer my apologies to this official and to his associate. Keep a watch on that customary. When I confirm that story about the robbery, we’ll wait for my Therihe to show up. We’ll size him up without causing any problems.”
“Little reed of a fellow?” I would like to search his wardrobe for white dresses.
* * *
In the Lanthornmount Square mural, The General had just opened his mouth to exhort the final pursuit of the Prevaricate’s houda. Two brown-robed magicians from Public Works peered at details of plaster and paint.
Fazgood noted the silent exortation and thought, The battle’s almost done! I am late!
He trotted across the square to Greatsergeant Keep. Calzjha met him at the gate, the book and Warren’s basket in his hands. An elderly maid permitted them entrance.
The Foofaloof said, “I was bored waiting for you, Pehzpersist, so I took a walk to the next keep to the south. It had been maintained by another founding family.”
From inside the basket, Warren thought, [Impressive fortifications in their day, my liege. They had been much adjusted by the years, but still inspiring.]
They passed through the oak and iron door and through a narrow, stone-walled anteroom. Once inside, they noted above their heads the spikes of a portcullis. They passed under, and the maid showed them through another formidable door. Beyond that, a larger room, just as austere, brought them to a set of stairs.
Mused the weasel, This smell! It is sweet and it burns. Such a lot of grease!
The Earl opened his lips a little and sniffed. “I smell it, too.”
At the top of the stairs, a stone balcony followed the width of the anteroom. An iron trellis finely notched and scalloped allowed for archers now long dead, for a final stand that was never necessary.
Warren nudged the Earl’s thumb, [The keep we visited is a revered shrine. This keep has its portcullis ready to drop.]
The Earl considered, [And iron is a treasure in the Kingdom. Someone has a lot of influence to keep this iron handy.]
They turned left at the top of the stairs, walked along the balcony, and entered a receiving room. The Earl counted twelve people in the room, walking about, whispering occasionally to one another.
Fazgood knew of the tradition of “Contemplations.” It was tried a few times among the thinking classes of Birqmuir; it had to be discontinued due to brawling. Fazgood’s preferred form of contemplation required liquor, darkness, and was called “conspiracy.”
Across the room by a window, shadowed by latticework, the officer stood with a tall, dark-skinned Rahsic woman in plain, gray dress. The two noted the newcomers. The officer smiled and whispered to his companion. The woman’s peaceful smile was fixed as if chisled into granite. They crossed the room in greeting.
The soldier walked to them with open arms. “Good aspirants, I am very glad you have arrived. This is the Goodwife Respiration Greatsergeant. Goodwife, this is the Foofaloof of the Ijkalla Islands, and his associate Pehzpersist.”
The Foofaloof said, “Goodwife, I am so pleased to have your hospitality.”
Respiration was slightly shorter than Calzjha. She glanced at the Foofaloof’s plain suit, the grace with which he presented his hands, his poise and the way he fulfilled the Six Common Qualities of Beauty.
Her smile broadened, but with little warmth. “The adjutant says that you are a man of notoriety.”
The soldier coughed and gained her attention. He made a meaningful look to the short Therihe in the business suit beside the youth.
The Earl said, “The Foofaloof is notorious to the unjust, goodwife. I am also grateful for your tolerance.”
Another woman, a smaller Rahsic in utilitarian goodwife weeds, stepped to the fore. “Goodwife Greatsergeant, I was wondering if you needed any help with organizing today’s contemplation.”
“I thank you,” said the hostess. “But all is in order. These are our visitors from the Ijkalla Islands.”
Introductions were performed. The Brumpf was included, but Warren kept his thoughts hidden to maintain his disguise. The goodwife took the Earl aside.
Goodwife Greatsergeant said. “Adjutant Childteacher told me of your meeting. Sometimes the adjutant can be quite fanciful.”
“Yes,” The Earl said. “He is enthusiastic. That can be a danger.”
“It invites much trouble from all sorts of people.”
“Indeed. There is an old saying: Even when an archer aims well, still it’s a damn arrow flying around!”
“Indeed,” she replied, and had a sip, her eyes watchful.
Loudly, Obdurate said, “I noted when we met that you are conversant in Adanikarese.”
“Perhaps,” the Goodwife bowed her head, her smile disappearing, “you were mistaken.”
The Earl wrung his brain to remember the conversation in front of the Amusatorium.
Calzjha smiled and said smoothly, “We trade with the Adanikarese. Do you speak it?”
In her eye gleamed a challenge; she said in Adanikarese:
“What will displace what can not be placed?
What forever dies without being broken?”
Obdurate translated for the assembled.
“A riddle! Intriguing!” said a tall, burly Therihe judge with a great black beard.
“Ah! I know this!” said the Foofaloof, and he assumed the simple, strong gestures of sanctified theatrical training:
“This displaces the not-placed! This eases, always traced:
An echo in a canyon after words are spoken!”
The Earl sighed and said in Adanikarese, “Is that so? Do not ask me. I am here for the food.”
He gave a thoroughly Harmoniad shrug.
Obdurate translated and all were amused, especially when Pehzpersist performed the shrug anew.
The guests remarked on the Foofaloof’s cleverness and grace to the grudging, newly contemplative hostess.
[Squire,] considered Fazgood to Warren, [I lived for years in that damn eardrum-piercing City of Noise. How is it that these homebound wretches speak the language better then me?]
[My liege, you concentrate on those words that are important. Their language is all unneeded air.]
[Well said, squire. That is why you are on my payroll.]
“If…if, uh, we could,” said Obdurate, “complete our sharing…I will be glad to bring the Foofaloof for individual…you know, to speak….”
The guests had already smiled at familiar, stammering Adjutant Childteacher and drifted across the room to their own considerations.
“That riddle has another ending,” Respiration said in Adanikarese. “That is depressing for a lovely day. I also learned the one about ‘hope’ being broken.”
“The sun fades,” said the puzzled Foofaloof. “Yet it is always there. Hope must be sought.”
Obdurate gently smote the Foofaloof on the shoulder. “Yes! Yes! Heed him! There may still be a way –-“
Even in a foreign tongue, the soldier bit his words to be discrete.
The goodwife’s lip curled. “I thought you said the other is ‘The Nimblest Man.’”
Fazgood growled. “I am happy you speak of me now. I was so sad and lonely.”
Obdurate was reminded, and became angry. “You have my book. Return it.”
“You say the book helped you find me. I will return book when we finish looking at it.”
“I need it now.”
Fazgood cast his eyes down and gestured to the basket. “After he has examined it, we will return it. This I promise.”
The Brumpf popped his head from the basket and fixed the young soldier with a defiant stare: [And my considerations will not be rushed!]
The lid banged shut. Within the basket was the aggravated flip of a page.
Respiration stood stunned. “I was looking in his eyes, and I heard this voice…this irate voice in my head.”
The soldier puffed, then: “If …if Warren promises, that is well enough.”
The other goodwife approached. “Good Respiration! I am very sorry, but time grows short and we haven’t had a chance to speak with your guest and I know I’m –“
The Goodwife Greatsergeant was still reeling from communication with Warren.
Quickly, the Foofaloof affected shock. “’No, no, no! I have been wrong for neglecting you. Could you introduce the Brumpf and I to your comrades?”
The fellow contemplator said, “Of course! But I saw your animal’s ears just now. Would it need water?”
[Pah! Animal!] resounded in Fazgood’s head.
“Do not worry. When the Brumpf is in need, he is most communicative.”
“My son has a mustimouse, and he is so much like your companion!”
[Like a mustimouse! This madwoman!]
The Foofaloof opened the lid for her to see.
“Your Brumpf seems so happy to see me. Hello…”
Fazgood appreciated that Warren kept his further thoughts to himself.
Respiration said, “Odd…talented creature or no, I do not believe you are this Fazgood.”
Obdurate puffed even more. “We have talked of this! How did I find him other –“
She merely had to whisper to cut him off: “Who have you found, with this untested method? Someone akin to this Fazgood? Someone who pretends to be Fazgood? Perhaps you found this…magicked creature.”
The Earl sighed. “Do you have an abomination in your house? I’ll kill it.”
“Leave my house. Whatever Obdurate has planned cannot succeed.”
Fazgood glared at Obdurate. “Her spirit lacks.”
Now it was the soldier’s turn to cast eyes down. “She is just…modest…and she…. You have to understand…her position.”
The Earl mocked. “I…I understand you tol-told me she-she like pl-plan.”
He flicked a pinky at the adjutant and said to the goodwife. “He speaks poorly when he wants. Get pity; get time to think a lie. You not fooled.”
The burning in her eyes dimmed a little, and she gave Obdurate a chiding, sideways glance: “No. Not at all.”
The young soldier smirked.
Fazgood added. “He wants to plow you. You know that.”
“I do not understand.”
“Plow. He wants to plow you.”
Both Rahsics’ jaws dropped with surprise. Respiration seemed about to laugh, and Obdurate about to throttle.
“You want to plow him?”
Respiration blushed. For the first time in their meeting, she almost laughed. Obdurate hung on her next sentence, misinterpreting her hesitancy as betrayal.
The Earl growled to Obdurate. “She means ‘yes.’”
To both: “I help you, nevermind who I am. He wants to plow. You want to plow. I want a meal.
“And Foofaloof, Brumpf and I need stay here.”
The soldier flushed anew and leaned down. “That was not our deal! What are you doing?”
Fazgood said, “Adapt, soldier. Goodwife, I speak with you alone.”
Obdurate struggled to hold his indignation.
“Just for a moment,” said the woman.
With that, the adjutant turned and crossed the room his head down in barely-convincing thought. They watched him leave.
Fazgood went to a table and poured a cup of water from a pitcher. He whispered in Rahsic. “Adanikarese burns my brain after a while. May I offer you a cup?”
“Your young man is rash. He charged in with that Adanikarese. He could have waited to see if the Foofaloof and I would betray ourselves through a misplaced conversation. You would not have made that mistake.”
“No,” she said. “No, I would not have.”
The Earl sipped. “You need some ready common sense to stop those charges of his. Yours is a delicate situation.”
“You do not want him hurt.”
“No. I did not want this…deliverance. He wants us to see through our fate together. I want him to…. There is no escape for me.”
She looked ruefully at the cup. “He is determined that good can come of this.”
A couple drifted close by, and Respiration resumed Adanikarese. “He spoke of your meal, Pehzpersist. The servants are difficult.”
“Yes, I met your maid.”
“The meal may be possible. But to stay here is not necessary.”
Fazgood sighed. “Yes, it is. Our soldier has already talked too much. If we are to deal, we stay together, keep each other in the deal.”
“No,” she replied, with finality.
Damn! I must be out of that customary! This keep is perfect! Who would question me here?
“I get him out of this,” the Earl ventured with a grimace. “I…will make sure he will not go to prison. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” she said. “How?”
“I am the Nimblest Man. You get me a meal and refuge, I keep him out of prison.”
“You have tonight,” she said, “to make an impression. If I am not impressed, you will leave.”
“Our deal is struck.”
Then the Therihe man set down his cup and said loudly. “Your Adanikarese is splendid, goodwife. As a service to your husband, I thought that we might form a study group towards better understanding. To bring the world to your door.”
The goodwife noted and said, just as loudly, “Everyone! I think I should help our aspiring citizens. To have the knowledge of those who have traveled abroad, that would be most enlightening to our circle.”
“Perhaps they could answer questions!” said a member of the Public Works.
Calzjha blushed. “I do not want to take up your time.”
“It would be our honor!” someone cried.
Now Obdurate paled. “Perhaps…if they…oh…it is possible –-“
Calzjha gave a panicked glance. “I would not know where to begin.”
Fazgood asked, “How much does your circle know of the Ijkallas?”
“We know only from the official dispatches from the army,” said the Goodwife. “They are dry reading.”
There were knowing chuckles.
Said the Earl to the captain in a whisper not-quite-discrete. “It would be useful to have a look at the dispatches. So that we provide fresh insights. The Foofaloof likes to prepare a proper talk for people he admires.”
Obdurate took the hint. “Yes. I could provide those.”
“The Foofaloof is so modest,” Fazgood overheard.
“A pleasant person,” said another, and the Earl restrained rolling his eyes.
The Goodwife took a deep breath. “To facilitate this, I will offer the hospitality of my home. They will reside here.”
A stir across the room!
The judge came to her side. “Is that wise? Who would chaperone?”
The Earl braced himself for Calzjha’s lie, because Calzjha always told this lie whenever possible:
“Goodwife,” smiled Calzjha, with nervousness a touch overacted. “Pehzpersist and I share a deep love for one another.”
Another stir! Openness about romance was always such a social gambit!
To make the illusion good, Fazgood smiled and made soft eyes to the Foofaloof. The Foofaloof’s adoration concealed a flicker of mischief.
Warren thought, [He maneuvers for romance between you again! The temerity!]
Much was discussed regarding the continuing of classes at the customary, and the regulations regarding aspirant sponsorship, towards which the judge gave useful advice.
Calzjha sighed. “Judge Mezzo-Baritone, you were about to talk of Abduryne. Is it beautiful?”
The juror seized a lapel. “There are few places more beautiful!”
“What did you enjoy?”
“I stayed in Llaldzl, the capital. Every morning I looked out of window, and I could see hundreds of spires reflecting green in the sunlight. The spires, and most of the buildings, are crystals, beautiful and perfect…”
Calzjha led the magistrate and a knot of other contemplators to the balcony.
[Warren,] thought Fazgood, [Let us take up immediately. Tell Calzjha to go to the customary and let them know where we may be reached.]
[But we’re hiding, my liege!]
[Not any more, squire! We are under the protection of a paragon family of the kingdom! Our enemies must now tread lightly! Have our luggage brought, and take care of the dirty laundry. Smell the room for any hair or what-have-yous laying around, and we’ll burn what you find.]
[I will do, my liege.]
Warren’s head poked from the basket, and he stared at Calzjha, awaiting his chance for a discrete thought.
Fazgood looked to Respiration, who gave a grim nod. Beside her, Obdurate’s eyes flickered like those of a man trapped on a galloping horse.
The Earl said under his breath. “This crab had better be good.”