The rickshaw driver set his harness down with a clatter of wood and came around behind his vehicle; he was a large grim man, shoulders surprisingly round for his job. He held up his hand to block his sight.
He said, “I do not want to know a blessed thing of this. Not one blessed…”
The Earl felt Calzjha startle as well.
It was the ward captain that Fazgood’s sister had prevailed upon.
And behind the ward captain’s rickshaw, there waited two other rickshaws. Both had drivers were grim, and unusually well-dressed for their task.
The rickshaw’s drape pulled aside, and in simple housewife dress sat Fazcelestial.
She hissed. “Put him in, dolts! Stand close with that other dolt and keep gawkers away! Keep the blanket on his head! Fazgood, this is just like your mess in the Three Cities! Could you not destroy a place where I live, just this once?”
Fazgood was lowered into the seat beside his sibling. He could see her hands unrolling a fresh cloth bandage. The Earl felt a scrabbling in the floor by his right foot. Poked under by his feet were black eyes wide with alarm and glistening with tears.
[Oh! My liege! Your legs! Oh!]
“Never mind me. The Dropsy is dead, and the Inspector is dead, and ruined as well. But the General is rampant.”
“Be out of the way, weasel!”
[I am sorry, Goodwife! The General is not captured? Surely he would be long away from here!]
“He is not –“
Calzjha whispered from outside the drape. “Fazgood, you did not say that you had contacted your sister.”
[The Earl did not want that known, in case there were problems.]
Salve slathered on his legs; even as the touch stung, the burns cooled.
Again Calzjha: “Goodwife, how did you know to bring medicine?”
She began wrapping the Earl’s right thigh and hissed loud. “I tell you, doxy, that I have tended to my family’s headlong flights since I was a girl. Stay with my brother and you will stitch an army.”
Came a cautious whisper from the left side of the rickshaw. “Will he live?”
“Is there anything we can do?”
It was Obdurate and Respiration.
Fazgood slapped the bandage in frustration then held back a shriek. “Does no one pay heed to any plan I make!”
He pulled the blanket from his head and saw Respiration’s head not a hand’s width away. “We could not stand to leave without knowing your fate!”
“Our fate,” grimaced the Earl at more salving, “is still uncertain until we step off the boat onto a new shore! As for now –”
Over the calls of the crowd came:
“I knew you!” the voice resounded.
Fazgood flung the blanket from his head and tore away the drapes. Between Obdurate and Respiration, he could see the tall form of the General advancing through the parting crowd. His stance, his voice were all nearly like the man who so moved the crowd in Greatsergeant Square. But his shoulders heaved with desperation. His eyes showed wide with frenzy.
The General mocked. “Captain! Adjutant! I realized you were to be conspiring! Yet, captain! You were the one with my wife! Think you could keep this from me?”
Respiration called, he still several steps away and outnumbered. “Say nothing, Allotropic! Why cause anymore harm?”
“You betrayed me for a number-mop! You would have ruled with me, and you gave it up for a clerk! How the ages will remember this moment, wife! How I will relish your misery!”
Obdurate had enough, and the blood of the fight within the keep was still roaring in his veins. He stepped in front of Greatsergeant: “Traitor! You would murder the city! One word to the Royal Family would have stopped this destruction!”
Greatsergeant sneered. “It belongs to me! To me! My family died keeping that secret for me! So that I could rule!”
“They kept it,” called the Earl, “so that they would not lose their position, you puppet-show!”
He pointed at Fazgood, bandaged and immobile in the rickshaw. “Do you think to sweep me away, broom? Oh no! I will sweep all gone!”
Fazcelestial spat. “A general! Can you never anger someone simple!”
“I would not have caused this!” Greatsergeant continued. “It is my wife who brought this upon this city! I would have ruled all whole and flourishing! Now, what is left for me but to tell all the truth? You have destroyed all! Let that be upon your souls! And wife, I want to watch your face as I tell all and destroy the Compact!”
The Earl tried to rise, but his legs gave out.
“Make way,” he hissed. “I need a straight aim at him! Sister, have you a knife!”
Greatsergeant looked to the curious crowd creeping down the street toward them. He turned and thrust a finger at the keep.
He said to them. “Oh! How I will tell you good people about that man, my grandfather!”
Obdurate looked back to the Earl, and saw the man tearing apart the rickshaw to find sharpness anywhere.
“Listen, all!” Allotropic cried to the crowd, the trees, the sky, the spirits. “What my grandfather accepted for his victory at Lanthornmount –“
A fist cracked against his jaw!
Obdurate punched again! The General fell to the bricks! Obdurate fell upon him, his hands around Greatsergeant’s throat! Surprised by those two blows, Greatsergeant fought back. The men wrestled and struck.
People dashed forward and seized the captain.
“No!” cried Respiration to the people. But no attention was paid to her; the captain’s hands were pried from the traitor’s throat and he was dragged from the fight.
Calzjha and Respiration pressed into the crowd. Fazgood could not see and struck the rickshaw in frustration.
Where are you, you damned Royal busybodies?
Hands held back Respiration. Calzjha pushed and pressed, but made no headway through the well-meaning civilians.
Allotropic Greatsergeant rose and pushed assistance away. “I will tell! My grandfather! My grandfather –“
Spoke a voice fluid and melodious, “You spoke of ownership for something distressing. As you are such a good friend to the nation, I fetched from far Alpia for you!”
Beside the General stepped a figure in a brown robe. A small, glittering blue hand seized his. The hood pulled back to show a tall, slender youth.
His hair was thick black waves, and his eyes shone black and piercing as if only through great concentration he could see before him. He looked like a Human boy, but his skin was the lightest blue.
Who did not recognize from their shrines their quarter-divine Prince Thousand-Eyed Storm? All in the square who saw him fell to their knees.
And of what the Prince said? Alpia was over a week’s journey away. The Royal Family could move through the spirit world as one walks through doors. From over a thousand miles away, the Prince had heard the General’s boast and stepped as easily as if from across the street.
General Greatsergeant puffed with amazement and defiance. He wrenched at the seeming fragile grip, but was held fast as if by iron. “I will tell! They will know!”
The Prince’s voice was like a small child speaking from under windchimes. “I do not know what it is you would tell, but as one of your sovereign, I should have first privilege to hear. Let us go to privacy, for however long that should take.”
The General’s anger drained into pale desperation. He knew the Royal family did not reckon time as mortals did, and that his time among mortals was now over.
He yelped to the crowd: “That demon! That mask –“
“Be at ease!” and the Prince whispered a strangely resonant coo. Greatsergeant’s voice stopped in his chest and choked his throat.
Prince Thousand-Eyed Storm brought Greatsergeant’s hand down and pulled to lead him. The General took faltering, hesitating steps forward, but he followed. He looked to his wife, but her eyes were averted and tearing with pity and rage. Fazgood glimpsed him before the Earl too dropped his gaze; the General’s eyes were saucers of horror.
Despite his loathing, the Earl felt a chill at the sight: Wherever the General could possibly be sent, he would be without army or aid, without status or command, perhaps even without physical form, for who knew what happened to those quarantined by the Royal Family? Any future that Allotropic Greatsergeant had was now cold, quiet, and obediant. He would be nothing, yet brought lower still for his memory of his insane aspirations. He was being led to his special Hell.
The crowd parted for the Prince and his horrid charge. The demi-god and the pariah walked until they were lost to sight.
So passed the mortal existence of Allotropic, last of the Greatsergeants, paragon family of the Kingdom.
The fire in the keep still flickered, but smoked in thick black plumes; the water was dampening its fuel.
Fazgood went back to the bandage, and tucked away the remainder at his toes, [Where do we go, squire?]
Stunned, Warren gave the instructions.
Fazgood nudged his dazed sister: “Bandage me, you!”
Fazcelestial gawped at his efficiency even in the extremity of the incident mere strides from them. “How… how can you be so fixed…I do not want to know. Get out of my city.”
Hands trembling, she resumed bandaging.
[Did you know] Warren wondered, [that the General was going to confront his wife here? That the Prince would come in time?]
“The General was to have been silenced in the square by Public Works, but he fled. The secret route of escape is the first place he would think to go. He knew I had no intention of dying. Do you see why I plan? Does anyone see why I plan? Then why do they not listen to my plans?”
“Shut up,” said his sister.
Obdurate struggled up from the still-cowering and bowing throng. He held his hand under his armpit.
Said the Earl. “At least that was well-punched, captain.”
“I think I broke my hand,” said the officer.
Said his love, close behind. “You saved a kingdom; do not expect pity and praise.”
Hearing his craft mentioned, Yet-More-Muscular twitched into the circle. “How is it – I do not mean to interrupt, but…how did you know I –“
Fazgood gathered Warren to his side and waved the rickshaw driver to his place. “Who else knows those details, but not the important stuff? And can write in Rahsic? And has trust and influence enough to be given leave by the guild?”
“Im – important stuff?” the brother-in-law’s eyes widened.
“Do not even think of asking me a question.”
“No. I will not.”
“Away with us!” said the Earl. “To your rides! We need distance and water under our feet.”
The others scrambled to the other near rickshaws, pulled by other guildsmen who Fazcelestial must have had mighty leverage upon.
“Go!” that goodwife snapped to the hapless driver, the ward captain.
He was quite energetic for a large and older human.
When comfortably underway, Warren wriggled under the Earl’s arm, [If I may, my liege, it makes me very happy. I have always thought of the Earldom as home.]
“Indeed. I know you missed it. Some pretender has claimed my land? Let us hope they have plenty to drink in the cellar, because when I arrive it is all mine.”
The rickshaws passed along streets bustling with pedestrians. Snatches of chatter sprang though the whirr of the grooved wheels:
“Such a tragedy!” “All in the keep were lost!” “None was left of the Inspector but a hollow Harmonite shell!” “General Greatsergeant was led off by the Prince, what of that?”
Almost at their peak above the bowl of the citadel, golden Rezhalla had almost caught little red Minque, it seemed; however, even children knew that only happened once-in-more-than-a-lifetime, and this was no such celebrated night, and so Minque would elude yet again.
The richshaws traveled far round to the north side of Harmonium, and over the bridges of canals. They disembarked from the sullen, leveraged rickshaws and stepped into others drawn by men who did not bother to see their passengers, who only took the money from Yet-More-Muscular’s hand and took the passengers to the Customs Houses.
At the docks of the Customs Houses, they found the Blue Swords: a fenced compound whose gate allowed them entrance. The rickshaws clattered inside the fence and the gate secured. A young embassy underling extended the ambassador’s regrets at not being there in person, which Fazgood saw fit to snort at despite his pain. The passengers disembarked. The Earl rose to greet his sister for their traditional farewells:
“Stay away from my city, brother,” she said.
But this time, he replied. “This time, sister, I promise I shall.”
Fazgood put arms around Fazcelestial, who sighed with annoyance and gave a perfunctory pat.
He gave his brother-in-law a vexed half-wave and was carried by Obdurate and Calzjha to the waiting merchant bark. The silent crew of tall, red Birqmuirish untied the ship. A river whale towed the craft until the wind caught the sails. Once at sea, the sailors spoke in whispers, but demanded no lights be lit.
They also claimed no tzeimprhoazk was on board, but the Earl beseeched as a man injured in battle against lout scout brigades, that the Imperial Blue Book did state that all men wounded by evil should be given charity. A few choice reminisces of beautiful nights in the fjords of Meilentach and of heroic families, and tzeimprhoazk was brought out and shared.
Calzjha never left the Earl’s side. Her slim form was never more than an arm’s reach, helping him stand, steadying him, taking the bottle when the pull went too long.
“Such dedication demands reward,” slurred the Earl.
“Does it,” Calzjha licked her fingers and wetted her eyelids to stay awake.
“You are promoted from the rank of ‘bodyguard.’”
She leaned close, and the most profound skepticism broadened her brow. “What is my…new title?”
“You are now ‘Chief Warden of the Earl’s Wellbeing.’”
Calzjha blinked. “What does that mean?”
“It means that when we gain more bodyguards, you will be in command of them.”
“It is an awesome responsibility. Castles tend to burn down around you. Look! I believe you can see the glow of the last one.”
Fazgood looked to the bow of the boat. Obdurate was trying to place his maroon soldier’s coat around Respiration’s shoulders.
“How that smells!” she said and she pushed it away, and pressed instead into Obdurate’s arms.
“How we both stink!” and she wiped a tear from her eye, and Obdurate wiped one from his. The sweaty, smoke-ruined pair clung to each other, their past irretrievable, their future disconcerting.
They will become accustomed to it, he thought, then spat and circled his face to ward away Zhazh.
On the rail, Warren looked to shore, alert and keen.
Home is where you are least likely to be killed in your sleep, thought the Earl and grunted in approval.
Beside him, Calzjha sat forward watching Obdurate and Respiration, rapt.
All she did was slow me down and complicate things. If I hadn’t brought her, would the Dropsy had still gotten me? Saved me from her own blunder is all. I have enough to worry about. And half the time she unnerves with her beliefs and testicles –
The pain and the alcohol and his thoughts alloyed into a bleakness, a sword-edged bleakness that he had not felt in years.
Fazgood looked over his shoulder to make sure no one saw, then touched Calzjha’s black hair, lightly so she did not feel it.
His hand felt like lead and his heart pounded.
As she was sitting and watching the lovers, and he leaned forward and pressed his nose to the locks and smelled smoke, the sea, and of her smell like the tropic forests she called home.