Obdurate applied the wax stamp to the top of the bill of lading and rolled his thumb over it. The bill of lading was due to Grand Slope’s North Brook Canal, Third Segment Of ‘Champion of The Post Street’, Building Two’s Office. He pinched his inkreed and wrote the address of that building from memory “1295-02-47-03-02”.
He set down the inkreed on the still tidy desk and placed the bill on the stack of contracts due to go out with the evening mail. He rubbed his temples with the heels of his hands, looked up at the engraved blessings on the wooden rafters.
“Why couldn’t I have stayed home sick during the Disposition Exams?”
Obdurate had been sick with a head cold on that morning.
His uncles had been drilling him, their prodigy, for weeks on math formulae. Young Obdurate had felt a little run down from the night before, and from the nights before that. But on the morning of the exams, he had awakened with a fiery throat and a nose that ran like an artesian spring.
Obviously, the immutable world had been trying to tell young Obdurate Childteacher not to go to the testing, but he had to go to make his uncles proud. He dragged himself into the lecture hall on the campus where his uncles taught, gagging and coughing through a handkerchief, and presented the Royal College at Alpia with the sole perfect mathematics disposition oral exam ever delivered at that tiny but respected locale.
The choice of the test led to the choice to leave his uncles’ home in the faculty quarters at the College, which led to a choice to become a public administrator (which he had the added burden of guilt; youths wrung their brains and hearts dry to be considered for public administration, and Obdurate could choose it) which led to the Army, and the man who had to have the very best on his staff.
General Greatsergeant was a leather goad of a man, a caramel Rahsic with the jutting forehead and chin of his famous grandfather who forever thrashed the demon in Lanthornmount Square. His warmest smile came as a command to be hearty if you knew what was good for you.
Before going overseas with the Army of Invitation, Greatsergeant would receive Obdurate’s careful, excited descriptions of streamlining transportation and distribution methods with nods approximating contemplation. Then he would say, “You can make numbers jump, boy. Supplies run so smooth I don’t even know they’re there. But as a person, you’re a salted fish.”
Then he would smile.
One day seven months ago, the General had received the order from the King himself: take the Army to the Ijkalla Islands and offer the Compact to all who inhabit them.
The General clapped his hand hard on Obdurate’s shoulder. “I have my wife invite guildsmen and their wives over for contemplations every day. Come tomorrow and get to know these people. I need you to keep an eye on things while I am gone.”
Obdurate understood more and more every day what exactly to keep an eye on. Then respiration showed the General’s secret.
If I could find a way to discern that monster, and show the General as he truly is…
Numeromancy was potentially dangerous in the wrong hands, so he was told. He risked demotion for experimenting outside his specialization no matter what the physical risk. At first, he did it because of boredom. Then it had been titillating to know the location of public figures at a given time, judges and police officials. He fantasized about running and telling the official in secret, risking telling them the secret, the telling of which would destroy the Kingdom. Now, it had become a compulsion and he tracked the most fanciful subjects to take his mind from his tedium and anxieties. He wondered if this brinkmanship was of the like that Respiration indulged, hoping to be caught to bring the charade to an end.
Concepts are always multiplied by concretes, details dividing the grand.
That principle and its definitions of terms had cost Obdurate more lunches with more civil planners than he could bear contemplating. Through mouthfuls of pickled vegetables, Obdurate learned how the traffic police and custom guards counted the numbers of carts and pedestrians who traveled the streets, and how this data translated into the creation of new residences and supporting utilities.
The working methods of trafficants really was interesting, even if the means of learning put Obdurate off his appetite.
Obdurate set aside the precious parchment and placed it in its cabinet. To limber up his counting-brain, Obdurate applied The Print Guild Exacting Theorum to “That Nimblest Man” (date of printing multiplied by number of pages, then multiplied by the enumeration of the guild’s printing press, then divided by number of lines per page multiplied by its font’s spacial factor). Uncle Lancing had taught Obdurate that theorem when at the age of five, Obdurate presented a hand-printed newspaper of household events during a passing interest in publishing.
He turned to the book’s frontispiece and checked the printer’s note at the first page of the book’s benediction. The note matched his sum: 92,413 words.
Flipping through pages, he hunted out the Mad Earl’s birth date, noting the time of birth vague. He noted the date Fazgood helped Blounbirq slay the Abomination, and the name “Weiquant”, the Earldom which the new Emperor Blounbirq bestowed on Fazgood.
His fingers thumped against the table in the rhythm, carrying his tens to his left thumb, the hundreds to the right thumb and so on.
Obdurate factored the date of the Earl’s marriage, and his wife’s demise. He factored the dates Fazgood fled his earldom in the middle of the night, of his arrival at the College of Incorrigibles, and at The Kingdom of The Three Cities to act as their Spymaster. There the story ended with the Mad Earl’s disappearance at the end of their civil strife.
“Oh yes!” Obdurate scratched his nose. “The observer influence.”
Obdurate divided by his personal number of “942137”.
Obdurate wiped the ink from his fingertip and beheld the total: “8513581302”.
He chuckled, then shook his head and groaned. He had a result, but no means of interpreting it! He would have to keep lunching to somehow finesse an interpretation of the sum. Another three weeks of pickle balls!
Something struck him as strange, though.
If looked at as an address, the “8513” was Harmonium’s own identifier. The eight? If the equation was indeed reductive, then the eight would be the eighth neighborhood, Paradesend. The five would be a street number…”Gratitude to the Citizens of King Lambent’s Reign Street”? Thirteen would be building identifier for…they were mainly private residences in Paradesend, or perhaps it was a grocer or a customary. Could the two be a room number?
The Mad Earl in Harmonium? Ridiculous!
Plug-hat toughs had scurried out of the Well-and-Ivy Scout headquarters on sudden errands. In an office stinking of incence and fear sweat, the Inspector slurped his tea.
More bungles to fix, he thought. Never an end to it.
Inspector Mehzadapt eased his breath and smoothed his ascot. The color seemed to ripple between his creased, pink fingers: yellow-blue-green-black-magenta, the five colors representing the Brigades Magnate. His plug hat sat on the table before him and to his right at the proper forty-five degree angle. Beside him, the adjutant’s hat rest at a somewhat sharper angle from the center of his body, thirty-five degrees perhaps. Mehzadapt adjusted his own hat and flicked at imaginary dust, until the adjutant reflexively slid his own hat to his proper angle and twitched his hands over his own rumpled five-colors.
Mehzadapt didn’t bother looking at the young man. “The police want to curtail the brigades. The guilds say we demand too much. Our lower ranks moan about wanting bonuses and extra privileges! Then they bungle a simple customs watch.”
He set the cup down and listened as the adjutant poured another cup.
“It’s a simple mistake,” the young man replied. “Badly timed, but simple.”
“How many other mistakes here have passed unnoticed? Sloppy work. What reflects upon one of us,” stated the Inspector with slow, hard conviction. “Reflects upon all.”
The adjutant shrank. A towering gray Adactoidoid deputy entered, and the young man shrank further from its scarred visage.
The deputy whispered into the Inspector’s ear, “They found where your gambler’s hid.”
“Have my Deputy Cornpudding see me, Varalam” he replied.
The Inspector grinned, making sure the smile did not reach his eyes. He watched the adjutant relax, eager to learn the cause of relief.
Mehzadapt waved a hand at the paltry news: “They have found that gambler.”
Another nervous twitch of the adjutant’s mouth. “Is this the one who has such accusations of you?”
“That gaudy liar. She wanted to leverage me and it backfired. I will gladly face her at my appraisal.”
“Yes, she’s a commotion: bangles, tinkly crystals, big clanking enamel buttons from who-knows-where overseas.”
The door slid open and a deputy admitted the scarred old woman who led as captain of the Well-and-Ivy.
“Evidence has been secured,” she reported. “One of the scouts picked these up. He took advantage of the disorder and behaved as a scout should. He gathered information.”
“I expect no less. What did he find?”
“A carpenter had said the widow had been eating biscuits. Our scout searched quickly and found this.”
The Inspector picked at the handkerchief. Within its folds lay three tiny shards of blue porcelain, each no larger than an Exult fingernail.
She added, “He got some of these before the police started mucking about.”
Mehzadapt flicked the cloth back over the shards. “That blue glaze is a jar of that stomach medicine they sell at the quarantine ports. This is all of the evidence located?”
“Yes, Inspector,” replied the Captain. “My scout left none behind.”
“We shall send some to the police, in due course.”
“Ah. Yes, Inspector. Though it would be best to insure if we contacted…”
The Inspector glanced again. The Captain’s sentence trailed off.
The Captain brought another cloth from a pocket of her tunic.
Two severed fingers left small stains of red on the cloth. One finger was small, thin and smooth. Knuckle hair bristled from the other.
The Inspector settled back with a snort. “Too rote.”
“My scouts did this penance. The senior of them did us a favor by finding those blue bits.”
Mehzadapt smoothed his ascot. “Tradition holds that the scouts should offer those as their penance. I want them both to reflect on what they have done, and come up with a more imaginative and sincere offer of remorse.”
“It would have been useful,” the Captain’s jaw clenched, “to know of your preference prior to their making this offering.”
Replied the Inspector, “It is in this way that I know the sincerity of those who work for the Magnate of the Scout Brigades.”
The Captain folded the cloth back up with a slight tremble to her fingers, and removed herself from the room without a word. The deputy shut the door.
The adjutant forced a smile. “Inspector, were those both pinkies, do you think?”
“Indeed the one on the left, the thin and young one, was a pinkie. The hairy one was a ring finger. That hairy old rascal had muddied up something before. What had I been telling you?”
“Oh! You…ah…you were describing the investigation.”
Settling back, Mehzadapt picked up his cup. “The Customs Police have accounted for all of the passengers on the barge. Being good citizens, the passengers had reported to the Police once the ruckus settled. That leaves two beings missing. The Police stated their Caster threw ‘The Blazing Comet.’”
He paused, waiting for a response.
The adjutant said, “I have not heard of a ‘Blazing Comet.’”
“Oh, they’re rare. It signifies some sort of major troublemaker. My Comet hadn’t applied through Well-and-Ivy for safe passage and inspection, or else we would have discerned them ourselves when they applied.”
“The luggage contained calling cards and clothing labels for the Millproctor Family, from Five-Near Gleaning. The police are searching the manifests of outgoing ships as we speak.”
“I wonder if the Millproctor women were murdered.”
Mehzadapt flipped his hand. “I would have killed them. It would be superb if the Brigades could capture my Comet. If we could dispose of him, that would exemplary.”
The Adjutant’s back stiffened. “You say ‘dispose’. That is for the courts to dispose.”
“If it happens in process, it happens.”
Deputy Varalam slid open the door. “Senior Caster Reedtickle Major is here. And Deputy Cornpudding.”
The Caster entered, and the deputy shut the door behind. Reedtickle was a Booloob, one of the race of intelligent gas bubbles. Reedtickle had slipped into a fashionable puppet body about one meter in height. The puppet body wore a well-tailored blue suit with a five-colored ascot and black plug hat properly sized for its scale. Above the ascot and beneath the hat, Reedtickle’s translucent gray bulb shimmered and rippled. Human-sized, fragile hands carried a tiny caster’s case.
The puppet body glided with tiny, floating steps to a place at the table. The hands set the case down and removed the plug hat. A whiff of the swampwater from the Booloob’s breakfast wafted across the table.
Mehzadapt allowed the smile to reach his eyes. “Reedtickle! Please! Do rest!”
Behind the Booloob stepped a stocky pink-skinned man in deputy’s attire, his skin dry and chalky, his hair brittle. Mehzadapt waved him over.
He whispered to the deputy, “Cornpudding, find the gambler. See to her.”
A deep rumble came from Cornpudding’s stomach. The man blanched and backed from the room quickly.
Reedtickle settled upon his cushion. The ripples above the necktie tightened into vibrations.
He warbled, “Good afternoon, boys! I heard we have some naughty louts to track down!”
Mehzadapt informed the Caster of the situation.
Reedtickle’s tone deepened. “A Monstrous Comet! You could go decades and not cast one of those! Sorry for my levity.”
The Inspector smiled. “No harm done. How are your progeny?”
“My foam does well, thank you Inspector.”
“Splendid! Let us begin. I told you what I learned from the police. They lack knowledge of my Comet’s destinations.”
The adjutant said, “Then I do not understand. I believed casting could measure how much trouble one will cause.”
“Some signs,” explained Reedtickle, “describe a being’s future intention and other signs describe that being’s past behavior. In particular, the ‘Comet’ sign describes what the person has done throughout his history. That is what we call this ‘essence.’”
“Ah! When he donned a disguise –-“
The Inspector clenched his smile at the interruption. “My Comet and whoever with him had to don the clothing of innocent people to pass detection.”
“When your Comet donned the Millproctor’s clothes,” Reedtickle settled onto his teacup to sip, “he was trying to obscure his essence from the spirits. Your Comet probably kept one of their sympathy dolls close in hopes her nature would obscure further. Such precautions are used in foreign lands.”
“But why did they not work for my Comet?”
A shrug of puppet shoulders. “Something goaded his essence to the fore. Being nauseous would not have been enough. Was there any other disturbance?”
The Inspector narrowed his eyes. “In the same pod of travelers, there was a philosopher.”
A gasp from the adjutant.
The Inspector sneered. “The philosopher had a false magic charm which he thought would protect him.”
Reedtickle wobbled with amusement. “A philosopher. Why would one bother with philosophy? Such a hazard would have easily detected.”
The Inspector leaned back. “If the dress was to obscure, then I suppose this: my Comet traveled with a decoy in case his first obscurities failed.”
“But something unexpected made his essence obvious.”
“So,” Mehzadapt ran his finger along the edge of his cup, “my Comet is thorough, experienced and bold at infiltration. He had bad luck and we were fortunate that some unknown cause interfered.”
“The police,” the young man said, “have come to the same conclusion, Inspector.”
The Inspector slid the handkerchief to the caster. “Here is our advantage. This was part of a jar in my Comet’s possession.”
Reedtickle turned over his left hand to reveal a thick black lacing across the palm. He untied it.
“’The Blazing Comet’ signifies someone who has influenced thousands of lives. A military leader. A civil magnate. A nobility appointed by divine right.”
“When you say ‘influenced’…”
“The Comet sweeps away all expectations and comforts.”
Both men considered this with alarm.
The adjutant startled. “Like a terrible fire or a flood. An invader!”
“Worse. You can rebuild after floods and invasions. The Comet’s nature sweeps away even the will to cooperate.”
The Inspector glared. “Adjutant! A demon who needs biscuits for an upset stomach?”
“That is sensible, Inspector. But consider that he could travel through our kingdom without notice or causing mischief.”
Reedtickle unlaced his right palm and pulled back its cloth flap. It revealed a translucent gray bulge, the same form as that which protruded from the caster’s neck.
The Caster touched the grayness of his palm to the shards delicately, in anticipation of doing the casting.
The Inspector sipped his tea. “Your job is done here, Adjutant.”
The adjutant’s mouth twitched almost into a frown. However, he did rise, bid farewell, and depart without protest.
After the door slid shut, the Caster opened his bag and pulled a tiny black cloth. The hands unfolded it, and smoothed out its red triangle. Out came the caster sticks, which were rubbed slowly between the large hands.
The Booloob said, “You’ve done enough of these to know when to ask.” His head-bubble vibrated, and the Caster’s keening made Mehzadapt’s eardrums flutter.
When the tone of the spell was appropriately rich, the Inspector asked, “Who is the one who owned these?”
The tiny red sticks scattered. Three joined at one end in the form of a triangle. A fourth joined at the apex and lay like a Comet handle.
The Caster stopped keening and leaned close to the sticks. “Ah! Here is our stranger!”
“So it is confirmed.”
“The Blazing Comet.”
The Caster gathered the sticks and rubbed them between his palms, keening.
“What intends my Comet in Harmonium?”
The casting rattled upon the table.
“’The Road.’ It could be the Comet is traveling elsewhere.”
“Reedtickle, there are many easier ways into the Kingdom. I believe my Comet wants to be here in Harmonium. Where did my Comet come from?”
“’Fleeing The Battle.’”
“Could that mean the strife in Czylachu?”
“It need not be an actual war. Wait. You had said ‘my Comet.’ You should have said ‘the Comet’.”
“Had I? Are you certain?”
“I am certain.”
The Inspector waved. “A turn of phrase. Cast again.”
“But with a strange result, Inspector. The spirits are sticklers for phrasing. The spirits may be saying that you, Inspector, know the Comet. Inspector, in your history you may have had some severe dealing from which our Comet which is fleeing.”
“That is ridiculous! Cast again!”
They cast again with the same phrasing. Sticks lined to form the road outside the triangle: “Fleeing The Battle”.
“Ha! Me! Dealing with such a dire creature! Are you certain?”
“Do not force me to boast, Inspector.”
Mehzadapt leaned his chin on his hands and contemplated the sticks. “I have caused many exiles. Others have been executed due to my diligence. Perhaps it could be a relative of one such rascal.”
“But who would flee by traveling back into the lair of the one who caused…”
The Inspector reddened. “He doesn’t mean to flee! Me! He means to attack me!”
There was much further casting.
Finally, Reedtickle held up his laced left hand. “This is enough. My mind muddies.”
The Booloob laced his palm. The Inspector waited expectantly.
Reedtickled declared, “Your Comet had fled some discord that you had caused. The Comet is a man skilled at his trade.
“However,” the Booloob held up a finger, “he owes you the debt of a life. You spared or saved his life.
“Most importantly, his intention is not clear.”
Mehzadapt slumped. “I have never spent a day outside of Harmonium. He has intentions regarding me, or will soon.”
“A murderous intention would have been clear at the Elder Daughter’s Gate. That Caster would have seen not ‘The Comet’, but something that showed that dire and immediate concern. A casting called ‘The Blade’, or another called ‘The Inferno’ are common when murder is intended. The Comet may wish you thanks for his life.”
The Inspector puffed his cheeks and squirmed a little in his wool blazer.
“A debt of a life?” he wondered. “But I spared few in my time. I…”
In his memory he saw a face, long abandoned and forgotten, lit red with the fire of a burning warehouse.
The one person who knows of my allegiance with the rebel Scouts. He could ruin me just when I am about to become Magnate of the Scout Brigades. Fazgood was always such a pest.
“I have someone you need cast for. But I also request a favor.”
* * *
The Sixteenth-Hour Daily Rain had passed upriver by the time Fazgood stepped off the ferry back in Harmonium. He carried a woven and lacquered package the width of his forearm. Calzjha eased through the crowd of businessmen headed home.
Warren poked his head from Calzjha’s basket. [My liege? I prevailed! He stayed in men’s clothes as I had demanded!]
“Tell me that our accommodations have been arranged.”
Calzjha bowed. “The place is called The Customary of Three Shady Moaltrees. It is known for its cooking of seafood.”
“It is there that I shall eat moosecrab until I am myself become a moosecrab. Then we shall flee before we’re found.”
The rickshaw’s wheels clacked into the grooves of the Lambent Concourse, a thoroughfare Fazgood realized was only twenty paces wide. They watched the crowds along the sidewalks until they passed under the Undoubtable Bastlement. They looked up at the gap where the spiked metal drawgates hung waiting, and at the massive rolling parapets.
The rickshaw’s wheels clacked into the grooves of the Lambent Concourse, a thoroughfare Fazgood realized was only twenty paces wide. They watched the crowds along the sidewalks until they passed under the Undoubtable Bastlement. They looked up at the gap where the spiked metal drawgates hung waiting, and at the massive rolling parapets.
Suddenly, the rickshaw stopped. Outside, all the pedestrians had stopped and looked behind.
Calzjha looked around. “What –?”
With a growl, Fazgood sprang from the seat and stepped outside. Calzjha scrambled for the basket and followed.
The whole of the traffic on the Lambent Concourse had ceased moving. Wagons and rickshaws discharged their passengers onto the sidewalks, to join the fellow citizens who had already begun intoning. As one, the city turned to face the Citadel. They sang.
A song without words, purely a melody, yet strangely off-key. The sounds resonated within the body and were strongly affecting. Men puffed and wrenched it from their chests. Old women quaked to their fibers singing it. Exult chicks peeped, stomachs crushing to their chests. All were swept with fervor and passion to make the thunderous deluge of sounds.
Calzjha and Warren stared dumbstruck.
“Ah,” remarked the Earl. “They do that here. Forgot about the anthem. Four times daily.”
After the tone echoed away, all turned again to their business. Their rickshaw driver bid them to return to their seats.
Calzjha remarked, “I understand a little about what you said.”
“I tried to speak with a few of the people. I wanted to say hello, exchange some pleasant talk. They were all very…what would be the word? They smiled, but were busy about their business.”
“That word would be…. I know what you mean. ‘Thank you, I am sorry’ while they’re stepping on your toes and pushing you along.”
“That is it.”
“That is Harmonium.”
“You aren’t like that. You said this is your home.”
Fazgood suppressed a belch. “I’ve gotten away and gotten a look around. But this is still my home.”
Calzjha spoke in Adanikarese, “They exiled you.”
Fazgood leaned his head against the wicker of the rickshaw. “My side lost. My family found that inconvenient. The government more so. Doesn’t mean it’s not my home.”
The rickshaw drew to a large house of brick painted bright blue-green. They got out and paid the driver. Fazgood kept the Adanikarese package under his arm. Beyond the rippled tile roofs of the neighborhood, following along the cupric twinkling of the Triumph, dusk shone off the tilted bowl of the Harmonious Citadel.
The customary stood two stories tall. Its veranda that wrapped around its front and sides on both floors.
A small Therihe woman stepped from the porch.
The Mad Earl grinned. “My name is Mehzpersist. Your home is very appealing. Is this freshly painted?”
After much flattery and flirting, Fazgood asked that a messenger run to the tailors and vendors he had conferred with that afternoon, and to give them his new address. He also made the appointment for Calzjha’s fitting for new clothes, which made Calzjha very happy.
“Citizen Customarian, I present the Great Foofaloof of the Ijkalla Archipelago. He is here to visit and get to know the peoples of the Kingdom.”
“We have only a two-room suite available. It is on the top floor in the back.”
“It is perfect, citizen! The Foofaloof dislikes noise and travels with few items of luggage.”
Calzjha muttered in Adanikarese, “’Foofaloof’? Is that some curse in Birqmuirish?”
[What a silly sound! Ha!]
Fazgood eased the bag from Calzjha’s hands. “In the Foofaloof’s bag is a symbol of his office, the Guardian Brumpf.”
The woman peered into the bag and her eyes widened. “What is this? Ah. It is most unusual.”
“The Brumpf is well-behaved, clean and very intelligent.”
“Pets must be closely minded. If it soils, it will be kept in a pen. Please follow me.”
She turned and directed the porters upstairs.
[My liege, need our names be so...flatulent?]
Fazgood hissed for silence. He touched the customary’s shoulder.
Now! The moment for which he had endured months, sailed for weeks, stolen and destroyed the fates of others, risked his life and his worthies lives.
He noted Calzjha’s breath had stopped. He sensed Warren’s anxious attention.
“Citizen Customary, have you moosecrab?”
She turned back. “I do not understand, sir.”
“Moosecrab! I have been craving it keenly for a thousand miles.”
“It is the fallow year for moosecrab.”
“Eh? What do you say?”
“It is the moosecrab’s year to be fallow.”
“’Fallow?’ I am sorry, I don’t know…”
“We do not harvest moosecrab this year, to allow its numbers to be replenished.”
Fazgood almost dropped the package. Calzjha seized his elbow and steadied him.
The Earl blinked. “None being cooked anywhere?”
“No kitchen serves it.”
“May citizens purchase a moosecrab?”
“No, on pain of jail.”
He slumped further. His eyes cast about feverishly. “Any tidal basins about?”
Her smile froze. “What?”
He caught himself and took a shuddering breath. “I jest! Ha! Jest!”
Fazgood turned to Calzjha and spoke in Adanikarese. “Again the gods flick urine in my face! Ha!”
The customarian and Calzjha both smiled politely.
Fazgood spoke in Rahsic. “Yes. A thousand miles travel. For just a soft, crispy claw in sour cream. Or a tender, juicy antler. Thank you.”
Calzjha affected a thick Adanikarese accent. “My servant is tired. A long day for us.”
The customarian gave a well-practiced frown. “Travel is so hard. In the sixth hour, Foofaloof, you are required to join class to become better acquainted with our ways.”
Fazgood suppressed a further curse. “Sixth hour? At dawn?”
They followed the porters upstairs to their room.
Calzjha slid the door shut. “Be calm.”
“There is no moosecrab.”
“There must be another food that will do as well.”
Fazgood murmured in Adanikarese, “The gods have little jests with me. I think only of tasty moosecrab since Adanikar…”
Calzjha sighed. “I shall dance ‘The Monkey And The Grapes.’ Perhaps that will make the spirits pity your situation.”
“God-poxied, urine-flicking, dance-monkeying –”
“Go to sleep, Faz. We will find moosecrab.”
“Yes. Sleep. So I dream of dancing moosecrab. Then I will go mad. Sweet final madness. Yes.”
Calzjha walked into the bedroom. Fazgood took off his blazer, shirt and pants, and flung the shirt in the hamper.
Warren crawled from the bag and quietly checked around the baseboards for peepholes.
The Mad Earl found the corner of the room that could not be seen from the suite’s entrance. He moved a small table and lamp from the corner to one side and put a sitting cushion in their place. He settled a pillow under his lower back, knotted two clean handkerchiefs together, then knotted them around his throat to keep his jaw from dropping open and himself from snoring. He kept the river rocks, the skullwarmer, and his cane hidden but within reach. He reached and turned the lamp key until the light dimmed to a faint orange glow.
He wondered as he fell asleep, What was that nonsense the fellow at the dock babbled before it all went sour?
Warren settled in the shadows across the room and listened to the house ease into rest, leaving the rustlings of servants preparing for the next morning, and the slow breath of Calzjha deep in ritual.
* * *
Harmonium’s activity ebbed in the faint hours every evening, but it never did go completely to sleep. The night air of the plazas back within the Secure took on a dim green illumination, as if false dawn cast through an immense green cloth. If one listened closely and the sea breeze ebbed, one could hear the crystalline, sweet tones of the glass armonica chorus which invoked this lighting.
At the mid-point of the Secure’s length, the Greatsergeant Bastion stood dark and quiet. The seabreeze pushed against the thick, simple curtains that Respiration had hung. The curtains made the bedroom stiflingly humid, but made it perfectly dark. It is this way that she could deceive the housestaff and retreat nightly to the secret anteroom.
In the deep, second hour of the morning, candles burned in the candle-holders. Obdurate and she lay naked on blankets Obdurate had purchased over the many months, her tiny trailing braids curling about their necks.
The stonewalls of the anteroom swam with color.
Stacked in makeshift but secure reliquaries, a dozen candles flickered in sublime lanterns. The heat of some tiny flames spun delicate turbines from far Adanikar, which held shades of stained glass and the glistening carapaces of insects. One candle reflected from a platter whose surface somehow flickered from orange to purple to amber.
Obdurate and Respiration turned away from one corner. There rest a lacquered ablewood bureau, the sole item of the General’s which Respiration had found in the room. It was massive and black with a stout lock carved directly into the wood. Neither of them knew anything of lock-picking, and it was too heavy to move, and who knew what charms lurked on it anyway.
Respiration told Obdurate about the afternoon she spent with the Judicial Mezzo-Barritone, and how he had described justice as “not a struggle against our natures, but a striving toward reliability.” Obdurate told of his experiment with the Mad Earl’s biography.
“Would there be a purpose to your experiment beyond your curiosity?”
“None that I am aware of.”
“You never do anything without purpose.”
He considered. “This Mad Earl is an arresting fellow. I’d fancy that I’d like to meet him.”
“He’s smart enough to stay where there are no laws. Would you know him if you saw him?”
“The frontispiece of the book has a likeness drawn from his official portrait. He also has this bold, dire creature he travels with, something called a ‘weasel.’”
“I’ve heard of those.”
“What would you know of weasels?”
And so it went with them, provoking and teasing and laughing. As always the conversation would become too happy, and Obdurate would become aware of their situation.
He said, “We seem to be outside of all understanding. And patience.”
She pinched his shoulder. “Indeed, you always infringe the borders of my patience.”
“We have to expose the treachery. This secret. How much a monster he is.”
“What would be the purpose? There is nothing within The Compact, nothing within the Kingdom’s treaty between spirit and matter that says we have the right. We are the ones breaking the laws.”
“People will listen.”
“Or they won’t.”
She leaned upon his arm. “Either way, I will be ostracized for adultery. You will be exiled for low treason. His secret will stay safe. To tell his secret could break The Compact and destroy the city, possibly the Kingdom. I’ll not have that. Would you?”
Obdurate stared at the ceiling.
Respiration pulled a blanket around the mesh of chain locked around her hips. “The Justice said, ’The pursuit of reliability is paramount.’ What dissembling do you think he would do to maintain harmony?”
“My uncles told me that all mathematics, all sciences, all magics were models to be improved upon.”
“All things grow and change. And end.”
He took her chin. “New changes create opportunities.”
“Where could we go quickly enough that he could not find us?”
Finally, he sighed and lay his head back. She smiled and stroked his head.
“Look at the lights, Obdurate.”
He noticed for what seemed the thousandth time how the light played upon her face and her skin, and how it made her appear like some ethereal spirit, a sprit of the dusk entranced by the colors of its own demise.
They settled into each others’ arms and dozed until the waterclock tapped the fourth hour.
It disgusted him to leave by the very means that Greatsergeant’s great-grandfather had planned to betray the Kingdom. He edged through the thin stone passage and ducked to enter a cramped storm drain. Carefully, he edged along inside the wet, gritty drain. Finally, he slipped out of the drain opening and into the cool night air. He looked up into the starry sky and saw Rezhala full and red, and little Minqe a little blue sliver almost slipping behind the gabled roofs beyond the walls of the canal.
He climbed up the canal’s steep embankment to the backyards of Mehez Glade. He listened for footsteps, then stepped quickly between two houses to the street.
He rounded a corner and passed two Exults in cook’s aprons clucking to each other, their forearm feathers trimmed back to show their bare white skin. He turned and looked behind him. The Secure loomed behind the houses. The Greatsergeant Keep was obscured by trees and a house on the corner.
Obdurate walked a little farther and he found a rickshaw. He boarded and gave the driver an address.
As he traveled, Obdurate pulled out his handkerchief and flicked mud and grit from his boots. He watched the red moon behind the roofs and trees; Rezhala the determined, and Minque the clever again too far away.
The rickshaw stopped in front of a large house. A few lights on the first floor glowed with early morning activity, but the Adjutant knew by the large porches and blue-green paint that the house was a customary.
He stepped from the rickshaw just long enough to read the sign: The Customary of Three Shaded Moaltrees.
Obdurate passed another coin to the driver, and was taken home to his barracks.
Even in his dreams, the taste of salty crab lay upon his tongue.
He stood as a boy in a dim-lit, bare warehouse, looking up at the great men around him. Basha the Red roared with laughter, scraping a hatchet against a sharpening stone. Moolkai’s huge hand seized a bottle of wine. Someone pressed a stone into Fazgood’s hands, the stink of sweat somehow making the crab-taste sharper.
Tak-tak bristled his feathers. “The bottle! Do the bottle!”
And Fazgood slung the stone. The stone shattered the neck with a bright pop.
Moolkai wiped wine off with his arm and roared. “You little bastard!”
Everyone laughed, even Moolkai.
Something knocked Rap-rap-rap!
Moolkai now leaned close. Now, the room ablaze and the crab taste choked like smoke. “You’d forget us all, would you?”
The laugh died in Fazgood’s mouth. “No. Never.”
The room burned and people screamed. Tears pushed through Fazgood’s eyes. Someone had betrayed them all and Fazgood had to do something.
The door of the room. The room in the Customary.
Fazgood opened his left eye and did not break the rhythm of his breathing. The room lit dim pink.
Skullwarmer by right hand, cane by left, window across and to the left –
A woman’s voice: “You must awake!”
Fazgood squinted both eyes open.
The Earl affected a refreshed persona. “Yes, we have been awake for some time!”
“Keep your voice soft, please.”
He rolled his eyes. A chastisement before breakfast.
He forced a smile so that it would be heard in his voice. “I beg your pardon.”
“Breakfast is in one half an hour. Please wash and dress.”
He suppressed a groan and struggled to his feet. Despite the fan, his back and buttocks itched, soaked with sweat.
The faintest whisk of feet faded down the hall as she went to wake the other boarders.
His smile slackened into a hollow, exhausted gape. From the baggage came a wet snore. The Earl tapped Warren. The weasel rolled and fell to the floor with a thump.
He looked sleepily around the room. [What?]
“And good morning to you, good Brumpf.”
Still bent from sitting, Fazgood walked across the room to the bedroom door. “Foofaloof, it is time to rise.”
Calzjha whispered cheerily, “Yes! Thank you!”
Fazgood and Warren both grumbled.
The Earl peeled his undershirt from his back as he walked to the center of the room. He stood as straight as he could manage. He spat into his hand and swirled the fingers around his face and smacked his forehead to give respect to Zhazh of the Almost-Eternal Set-Up Line.
Which he followed with a deep gutteral breath and thumping his arms across his chest. He sang –- softly! — in Birqmuirish. “Mikaert! I am the sword of your champion! Mikaert! I will always fight beside your Blue Imperium! Mikaert! I will weep at your victory, for there will be no more evil to cleanse!”
He then bade Peace To The Sprits of Alumni From The College Of Incorrigibles. He looped his pinky fingers together, and spelled the Three Felonious Gestures.
Despite the Earl’s earnest assuaging of the divine every morning, his head swam still with sleep and doubts. This is why he came up with his own ritual. He scratched his butt and began.
Who Wants Me Dead? The Unnamed want me dead. The Unnamed live underground, and sneak around in the shadows, and can try to kill me at any time. The Three Kingdoms have ceased seeking my death, but now the Prevaricate would like to make a shadow puppet from my skin. The Prevaricate could send some crazed flying demon my way at any moment if he knew my location.
Most of The Family of Noise would Want Me Dead, and probably send out ultra-audible calamities meant for me. Some offended bereaved families at various plundered tombs, too many to remember, would Want Me Dead. Any of them could step from a crowd with a dagger. Any exiles from the First War of Imperial Unity would Want Me Dead. As would exiles from the Second War of Imperial Unity. And then from my youth, there’s…there’s…
Still can’t remember. Had he forgiven or forgotten an enemy in earnest?
Hadn’t he dreamed something? A fire in some sort of room?
Ever since leaving Adanikar, there was someone he kept forgetting! He couldn’t ask Warren or Calzjha, neither of them knew of his list (the list would cause Calzjha to erupt into philosophical enlightenment, and give Warren anxieties). Those he had named, he imagined them as he last saw them: the bloated Family puffing with rage; vain-glorious Birqmuir nobles chilled with indignation; captains of guards sullen and puffing for breath.
Who defeated them and escaped? I did. But…
Whatever or whoever he had forgotten Wanted Him Dead, day-after-day, it felt as if he had awakened with a cavity in his soul! Who had he forgotten?
As he thought of it, he was overwhelmed by the thought of buttery crispy seafood, and his teeth raged for moosecrab.
Now he fully-awakened, sharpened for whatever lay ahead, for perhaps his last day, again. To eat lentils for breakfast, still no moosecrab.
Calzjha knocked upon the sliding door. “Are you dressed?”
Fazgood swept up the robe laying upon the couch and slipped it on.
“Yes. Come in.”
The young man slid the door open and entered. His hair shone with grooming oil and his robe wrapped without a wrinkle.
“I have been anxious to see what is in the package.”
Fazgood rubbed grit from his eye. “Yes! Let’s have a look.”
He reached beside the luggage, picked up the Adanikarese box he acquired in the Foreign Due, and set it on the cushions. He slipped apart its lacquered flaps.
Fazgood said, “Yes! Here we are. Our grooming kit. The hair in my ears need burning.”
He lifted out a small roll of velvet and set it on the cushion.
Calzjha unrolled the cloth to reveal pockets which held tiny metal scissors, candles, vials, combs of bone and amber.
“Never mind those,” said the Earl. “Nothing keeps my life brighter than…”
He tugged out a thick envelope. Within, a comforting stack of Rahsic currency. The stiff cheque drafted from Hrikinik’s underhanded merchants would be deposited in a bank.
Warren scurried to the box laying on the floor. “You had said ‘fish sauce’, hadn’t you my liege?”
“I did.” He rattled and clinked through the box and pulled out a green porcelain bottle. Ink renderings of smiling fish chased each other around the container.
[Oh thank you, my liege!]
Warming to the moment, the Earl presented three stacked jars to Calzjha: “Aspar unguent, spiced oil, and that whatever lotion.”
The young man took the gift and bowed with mock solemnity. “My poor skin thanks you.”
“Save some of that for me, my nose has been drying out. What is this?”
He lifted out a cut crystal vial the length of a human fist and as large around. Its stopper was wrapped with an elaborate folded flower made of thin gold foil and sealed with gold wax.
The Earl read the label and smacked his lips. “’Vengeance-of-the-Lava-Lord Relish’? Wait!”
Warren and Calzjha froze.
“I do not remember placing this in the box. This could be a danger.”
Calzjha muttered, “I have never known Vengeance-of-the-Lava-Lord Relish when it wasn’t a danger.”
At that, a petal of the foil flower trembled and gave a tight metallic pang! Then again –- pang-pang! The flower trembled and the tapping continued, the sound like an annoying someone flicking a fingernail against a copper pot.
The sound was the symbol of Hrikinik, the Timpanate of Irregular, Faint Metallic Tapping.
Within the tapping came a faint, reedy whisper:
“Oh Fazgood! You great Comet! Hear this message! Eat my delicious relish with your uncivilized moose-crab. Do you remember us mixing this relish? No? Ha! It will bring the heat back to your soul that you sorely miss.”
The Timpanate’s laughter and tapping fell to silence.
The Earl sneered and returned the vial the box.
“What did he mean by ‘mixing.’ Did you make a special batch of that vile stuff?”
Puzzled, Fazgood shook his head. “I do not remember doing so. But he had sworn to help me get to Harmonium, and not interfere.”
Warren peered at the bottle. [Why?]
“He thought I would…”
He waved his hand. “…Cause rioting in the streets.”
[The Timpanate would enjoy that for its own sake. And he is bound by his oaths.]
A rap at the door gave them a start. “Please, guests. You have three minutes to shower.”
Despite the politeness, they knew this was a harsh command to move.
They bundled the presents back into the box and left Warren in charge of it. Down the stairs and out the veranda they padded to join the queue of sleepy, disheveled residents outside the solitary shower room, and with them spoke the benediction for the hot water. Fazgood let Calzjha to shower and leave back to the room, then the Earl rubbed as much hot water on himself as he could in his allocated three minutes.
He shouldered past a bleary Adactoid at the outhouse, gave the Rahsic benediction (“All blessings to the Eldest Daughter for her mercies and generosity”) then his personal benediction (Tap the head, then heart, then a swooping gesture which meant “Out the mind and out the soul and out the dragon’s breathing hole”), then. The piss then flowed on cue down the hole to be sluiced through the sewers to the river.
Return to their room, then dressed. Calzjha eyed Fazgood’s well-tailored suit with some jealousy. Fazgood tucked the skullwarmer into a pocket, as well as the bottle of relish (“You never know when a dinner will appear!” said the Earl). They could only use the combs on his wet hair, and then a touch of the pomade bar to get it to stay.
Warren sprang into the basket, and Calzjha closed the lid. Calzjha picked up the carrier and they stepped downstairs to the small communal room where they joined the freshening guests. The room crowded with about thirty beings concentrating upon their meals.
The Earl’s stomach was as a dawn after a terrible night’s storm. The others ate fruit and raw barley and slivers of fish. The customarian allowed for a small saucer with fish slivers to be placed into the basket for the Brumph. Fazgood took some cold tea and fish stock and tried to imagine it as moosecrab, and almost wept with frustration.
The seventh hour was time for the morning lecture. All helped with the clearing of the plates and the folding and stacking of the tables against the wall. They arranged the cushions to face a plain stucco wall.
An Adactoid customarian introduced as a thin, wide-eyed Adactoid strode to the wall.
“Who am I? I am your instructor, Kikpoktik. Who are you? You are my students. You are reminded daily of this: you are to study to pass your test to become a citizen of the Kingdom. Our sacred Compact demands this: it is the eternal contract drawn to keep all in harmony and all under protection spiritual, divine, physical and magical. Ignorance is not an excuse for insulting the Compact, for the gods and spirits do not forgive. Your ignorance risks the well-being of all.
“If you do not pass your test at the end of these weeks attending the customary, the least promising of you will be exiled. The more promising will be put to servitude creating the royal highways and allowed to test again in five years.”
Calzjha paled at that.
“This day,” said Kitpoktik, “you will be taught of the races of the Kingdom. You may have noticed that there are many races living and working in the Kingdom. What do they do? They work at many different tasks, but all share the same responsibilities as citizens. What of these races? There are several races, and they take many forms and shapes.”
Kitpoktik did not gesture or pace, or even change the pitch of his low droning voice.
I am bored already.
The Earl glanced at Calzjha to find distraction. However, Calzjha followed the lecture attentively, despite knowing this subject well already from his studies in Adanikar.
Kitpoktik took a breath. “To be specific, there are eight races in the Kingdom. What are these eight races? I shall begin with myself. I am an Adactoid.”
The basket rustled. [This of forty-one law-knowing races throughout the world.]
Faz knew where this was going. Warren had a love of knowledge, especially his own.
[Yes, Warren. A gracious thanks to you. But I can only learn so much at once.]
[Oh! My apologies, my liege!]
Calzjha kept his hand firmly on the basket’s lid.
“The race of Adactoids are born and bred in the crystalline Resmeraseras Mountain range. The Adactoids pass along knowledge through reproduction. How do they do this? Every new progeny of Adactoid adapts itself to the needs of its progenitors. How does it –“
Yes, yes. In Birqmuir, there was that fourth generation Adactoid soldier the Viscount employed. It was a blue siege engine the size of a house.
The Earl had endured enough lectures at the College of Incorrigibles, both giving and receiving. Being lectured on things you know in a droning, purposefully measured voice by an immobile and nearly listless presenter? There must be an Official Hell for that.
My Master Craftsman candidate Bone-Gaff would throttle this fellow by lunch and had the body sold for beer money.
“For Adactoids have two genders. What are these two genders? The two genders are adula or “those-who-emote”; and imula or “those-who-think”. I am imula. Adactoids reproduce…”
I wonder what happened to young Bone-Gaff?
“…conversation within this relationship surpasses the correct level of intimacy and understanding, then an infant is conceived…”
“’Approve my studies or I’ll slit your throat,’ he’d say. ‘Try to catch me in my office!’ I’d say and we’d –
[I know this! Discorsive reproduction! One of the seventeen known methods of reproduction! Ow! What is wrong with this lid? My liege, could you get Calzjha to open this basket?]
The basket rustled and shook.
The Earl sighed. Calzjha smiled and tightened his hold.
* * *
Later that morning, the group of aspiring citizens scurried down the street after the customarians. In the back of the groups, Fazgood renewed his whispered objections:
“My head aches. I do not care who does what with which. The damn population’s here.”
Calzjha glided along the sidewalk. “How are you to be a good citizen if you do not understand your fellow citizen?”
“What’s to understand? Just boil it down. Here! You should agree with an Adactoid all the time. Then you do what you want to do anyway, and when the Adactoid finds out you apologize. Then leave the Adactoid to take the blame. That is all one needs to know. I would have given us an hour of our lives back.”
There were no interjections from Warren since halfway through the lecture; first due to his pouting, then the warm and dark basket lulled him into a nap.
Their conversation switched from Rahsic to Adanikarese in a way that would have bewildered casual listeners.
“You must study for your test.”
“I must, to keep up the ruse.”
“Warren should not help you with your tests.”
“To be a capable leader you must surround yourself with those who are capable. Do you agree?”
“That would help to rule.”
“How am I to know if Warren is capable if I do not let him take the tests?”
Calzjha gave a vexed look.
Their group of aspiring citizens scuttled along the walkway after Citizen Kitpoktik. The citizen’s heels clacked on the pavement.
Calzjha whispered, “Those shoes are made of canvas. How can Kitpoktik make them make them sound so hard?”
“They are lacquered with Kitpoktik’s humor.”
Calzjha’s eyes widened. “Do you jest?”
“Yes, but without any satisfaction, as usual.”
They approached a crowd gathered around a wall. Within the shade of the building’s awning, one could see that large brown sheets of paper had been affixed to the brick. The crowd read, engrossed.
A Fabri had piled itself beside them and wrapped around its speechmaking bagpipe, “What…is they?”
The customarian looked impassively. “What do you mean?”
The rumples twisted from the exertion. “Why the crowd? What…are they? Doing?”
“This is a tradition of our city. We gather and read from the walls. Why do we gather? To learn. To share. To be inspired.”
Kitpoktik turned and clacked towards the crowd. Some of the men and Adactoids and Exults made room and gave bemused glances to the newcomers.
Fazgood gave well-practiced sheepish smiles and nods of appreciation. Calzjha glided behind, averting eye contact.
They read.The Second Chapter: His Discovery by The Purposeful Cleric When first we find Fazgood, he is but a young boy wandering without society or king. He is begging and abandoned along the Katokol Road. Living only from stealing from the able merchants of the road. Sleeping in the harsh solitudes of the wilderness. Wandering only between life and death!
Fazgood spoke from the side of his mouth, “’Solitudes’? What are ‘solitudes’?”
Calzjha whispered, “It means ‘lonely places’.”
Fazgood spat in Rahsic, “I was chased from decent company!”
Hearing the tone of invective, Kitpoktik turned. “You do not like it, Mehzpersist?”
Catching himself, Fazgood dipped his chin in deference. “Good customarian! I meant no disrespect to the skillful wordwrights of this learned city. I find little to hold my interest in this…story.”
“This is a ‘dusk-thicket tale’. Everyone loves dusk-thicket tales.”
“What is a ‘dusk-thicket tale’?”
“What is a ‘dusk-thicket tale?’ They are tales of common folk accomplishing great acts for the common good.”
A Therihe in business clothes leaned between them. “If I may add, good customarian?”
“What are your credentials, citizen?”
“I am a journeyman printer with the Pen-and-Crafts Guild. I helped print this broadsheet.”
“Ah! I would appreciate the supplementation.”
The guildsman addressed Fazgood. “Stranger, dusk-thicket tales have much to recommend them! Heroes in dusk-thicket tales start out fools, but end up good and decent.”
Calzjha nodded. “Ah. That is good. Inspiring.”
The customarian placed his hand on the guildsman’s shoulder. “Did you read ‘The Gold-Leaf Proctor’?”
“I helped with its printing! Wasn’t it affecting!”
Calzjha asked, “What is ‘Gold-Leaf Proctor’?”
The guildsman beamed. “A moving tale! A young Exult fledgling strikes out from home to make her mark as an artist. However, she is a silly and willful maiden-hen and refuses to join an artist’s guild. In her travels, she stays at a remote farming community. She is destitute, of course, and in exchange for food, she teaches the local children the basics of writing and pencraft.”
Kitpoktik’s eyes widened into an actual expression of excitement. “Then a band of demons struck out from the Forest of the Prevaricate. They surrounded her little village and attacked! What does she do? She tended to the wounded and lead the resistance to the siege.”
“Ah! How moving, yes!” Calzjha nodded.
“The siege is broken by the Prince’s Border Guard. Then what happens? Just when the day is won, she is slain by the last arrow launched by the demons. She dies in her lover’s embrace, declaring her happiness that she died a useful –”
The Adactoidoid hissed. “You desire to say something, Mehzpersist?”
“These are heroes? Fools who wise up in time to be murdered?”
The guildsman flicked a fly from a broadsheet. “You would need to read to appreciate.”
Within the inner pocket of the man’s suitcoat, a doll sat snug. Its skinny brown head protruded from the lapel, and its lumpy body pressed the line of the lapel away from the man’s breast, a stuffed sock and painted brindled brown. Black buttons and whiskers created the face of a weasel.
The guildsman still took a step back. “I would not wish to spoil the tale for those in attendance…”
A chorus of voices around them: “Yes, do not spoil it for them!” “I read it in the military but be gracious.” “I would thank you if you did not.”
The Kingdom military were given first access to all newly-scribed literature in the Kingdom, as reward for service. These readers were former soldiers and sailors who were (Fazgood was dumbfounded) re-reading a book. And so taken by the tale, they walked about with manques of Warren.
A few of these people reached within their jackets and shawls and adjusted their passengers.
Whispered the Earl, “Are those affinity dolls you carry?”
The guildsman leaned on his heels, beaming with pleasure. “Many who read the tale wish to have an affinity for the Mad Earl’s daring and endurance! And the weasel companion helps us to gain that affinity. We become the Mad Earl in a small way.”
Fazgood pondered the broadsheet in plain bewilderment. He remembered the cold rain, the gnawing hunger, the punches and kicks from those he robbed.
His chest wracking as he wept from lonliness.
His heart clenched in anger.
How dare someone tell this!