“Mad Earl Faz”: Chapter Three

26 02 2014

The rickshaw’s wheels slipped into the grooved thoroughfare. The Earl marveled; a grooved street! The bumping felt the same as it had when he was a child.

              From under the veil, he watched the driver’s bare feet padding, soles flashing. To the right of the rickshaw stepped the shoes, boots and bare feet of pedestrians. To his left, the whirs and padding of other rickshaws.

             He cast his mind down a tunnel within to see and hear what Warren noted. Warren stuck his head farther from the carpetbag to accommodate the Earl’s eagerness. Guildsmen walked with their graying masters in front. Vendors still had wagons made from green ablewood wagons. The savory sweetness of pickleballs cut the salt air.

The Earl pulled himself back from Warren’s mind. The weasel slipped back into the bag.

Fazgood leaned to Calzjha. “Stop short of Tailor’s Row.”

Calzjha sang. “Excuse me, kind driver –”

Fazgood reached with the cane and thumped the driver’s back out of principle.

“Yes!” The driver turned his head

“My poor mother wishes to exercise. Please let us out at the beginning of Tailor’s Row.”

Before long, the driver set down the rickshaw. “Here is Tailor’s Row, kind ladies!”

Calzjha paid the grinning driver a silver piece and sent him on his way. The Earl soaked his handkerchief in a fountain and mopped sweat. Before walking on, Fazgood found a smooth stone about half the size of his fist. He slipped it into his bodice.

As they made their way to the clothier’s stalls, many kind tradesmen passing by came up to them and asked after the grandmother’s welfare. The tradesmen spoke at length with Calzjha. When the grandmother suddenly seemed dizzy, the tradesmen helped to steady and comfort the old lady. It is that way that they acquired money to pay for new clothes, and a guildsman’s card.

“Now our next maneuver,” declared the Earl.

They shopped a clothier for Calzjha’s slim-but-hale brother, and for Fazgood’s sainted-but-choosy cousin. Their fictional relatives were themselves tradesmen from the new colonies, and needed fresh new clothes.

Calzjha picked up a bright yellow scarf. “My brother would like this, I believe.”

Fazgood wheezed under the veil and wiped his brow. “That scarf would make him look like a hoodlum! He should have a stiff blue collar like the rest of the guild.”

“Then Cousin-Removed would like this warm wool greatcoat,” Calzjha spoke to the toothy clothier. “For he gets such chills. He told me so.”

The Earl shuddered at the word “warm”. He said, “It costs too much! The cotton short coat will suffice.”

The clothier blinked with surprise. “My prices are reasonable, ma’am. And it is your cousin’s health…”

When they emerged from the shop, the brother’s suit was bundled with a yellow scarf, and Cousin’s bundle included a dark blue cotton blazer. At a woodwright, Fazgood found an ablewood basket and bindlestick to carry their purchases over Calzjha’s shoulder.

They boarded another rickshaw, and proceeded to The Memorium. The hemp-shod feet of deliverymen trotted by. The bright brocaded shoes and flannel cuffs of businessmen strode. The dark slippers and tight cuffs of homemakers traveled in flocks with the tiny shoes and bare legs of children in tow.

To their left came a rumble. Beneath the rumbling floated a complicated, high keening. Calzjha gasped, then caught himself.

Fazgood’s heart leapt into his throat. He lurched in his seat.

Is this a Glaive Ship sent by the Emperor to kill me? No, there’d be explosions! A demon? Some huge Unnamed?

The driver slowed and called back to them. “Don’t be scared, ladies! It’s one of our ambulators! People ride in them!”

Fazgood glimpsed a long carriage trembling past on the left. Woven of knotted ablewood arched into a long dome fringed with tree-trunk sized legs rippling in cooperation, the entire construction held the likeness of an enormous pillbug. The low morning sun behind it cast its shadow upon them. Atop the long dome, they glimpsed the purple heads of Adactoids and the curve of a Booloob swaying in the throes of incantation.

Warren squirmed in his bag. [I believe the peasant tells the truth. That must be one of those ambulators, my liege!]

Fazgood grunted. [Yes, of course. I thought so.]

Abashed and curious, the Earl resolved to ride one as soon as possible, as soon as their infiltration made good.

The rickshaw eased along the traffic up the Arterial Road to the second tier and Champion Terrace. The noon sun had burned off the mist, but a light breeze and the rickshaw’s draft kept its passengers somewhat comfortable. At the red wooden gate of the Memorium, the driver stopped. Calzjha gave the driver a generous reward, but the driver took half offered by his passengers in their time of sorrow.

I should disguise as a widow more, thought the Earl. It spares expenses.

Fazgood and Calzjha joined the sobbing throng of white-clad people in the park. They wandered around the courtyard, reading the signposts: “Memorials for the Beggers’ Guild”. “Memorials for the Stonecutters”, and the like until they found “Memorials for the Millstrong”. They entered its alley and slipped into its shrine, rich with the smell of yeast and malt offerings in the bowls.

Fazgood sobbed the liturgy as Calzjha changed from the gown to his new clothes.

 

“Grain of soul from chaff of woe,

Enthus culls our blessings so.

Devotion sustains through toils and pains,

we are the stone, we are the chains.

Our wheel will serve anon.”

 

Mourning doesn’t seem right without a glass of good Birqmuir tzeimprhoazk liquor. I will have another when I finally – finally! — eat my moosecrab.

Roused, his soul panged for buttery, subtle-spiced moosecrab. He cursed himself.

Mad obsession! How I’ve gone through so much, to risk it on madness!

Calzjha then keened as Fazgood changed clothes. After he finished, Fazgood took an extra pair of wool stockings he had purchased and stuffed one inside the other. He then slipped the stone from near the water fountain inside the stockings and tied a knot behind the rock, making a “skullwarmer”. He tucked it into a pocket.

They took their two sympathy dolls, and as they both wailed, they removed their amulets and dangling charms. Mother Millproctor’s doll wore tiny silver wards around its hands (against arthritis, Fazgood had seen those charms sold by homemages) and both dolls had copper bands engraved with a long, clean intestinal tract.

“Sorry, ladies,” Fazgood muttered. “But they’ll have apple elixir at your port-of-call.”

He removed the dolls’ clothing, to reveal the rawhide bags tied around the dolls’ waists. He untied the bags and scraped the activator glyphs from the dolls’ porcelain torsos. Warren kept watch up the alley.

Fazgood defaced the glyphs sufficiently, then opened the drawstrings of the bags. They rose and bowed to the spirits of wheatery and made their exit. Once outside, Fazgood scattered the contents of the bags; bits of hair and personal trinkets and fingernail trimmings and wax flew in the breeze. This insured that the Millproctors would come to no harm when the dolls were disposed. He found a cleft in the wall beside a fountain and tucked the dolls away from sight.

Calzjha asked, “Why don’t they avoid cold and avoid strain and eat what they can digest?” 

Warren thought, [Because they are masters of the world, and not primitives scratching themselves with sticks.]

The Earl looked warily at the shadows. “Let’s get to the theater. The Memorium unnerves: I feel Uncle Tch-Cuf creeping in my tender parts.”

He hissed, tilted his head up and stamped his feet, which made the sign to ward off the Selseich culture’s Usher of the Dead. They walked to the top tier of the city.

They arrived at Lanthornmount Square and purchased two admissions to the Shrine Wine Tub Theater. They were some forty minutes early for the Special Night Workers Inspiration to be performed at mid-day. They told their host they would wait in the foyer, but Calzjha and Fazgood did no such thing. They slipped off to a closed off anteroom and rid their old clothes. Calzjha regretted losing such flattering attire, but Fazgood insisted on leaving it to be found by the wardrobe-master, who would then berate his assistant for being sloppy or bless his luck at the unexpected donation.

Then they slipped back out the theater with the crowd, blinking in the bright sunlight. They followed up to Lanthornmount Square. Calzjha walked stiffly in his canvas shoes.

The Earl was relieved to finally see Harmonium fully. Lanthornmount Square seemed so much smaller than when he used to run its length as a child. Across the square at the tile mosaic of the Battle of Lanthornmount. General Greatsergeant glowered from the midst of the swirling smoke and the minions of the Satirist, sword drawn to strike a screaming, snake-bodied demon.

The Earl inhaled. The salt air reminded him of fish, then of seafood, then moosecrab.

He groaned with annoyance.

The Earl passed Warren to Calzjha, who tucked him into the basket.

“Off I go to the Due.”

Warren peered from inside the basket. [Harmonium is so quiet compared to Birqmuir City!]

For all the hundreds of people in Lanthornmount Square, only the low song of a pickle ball vendor rose through the brook of speech and travel.

The Earl guided them from the square. “Now gentlemen, as we walk to the flats, may I introduce you to Harmonium?”

[Certainly, my liege!]

Fazgood looked about. “I’ll do this quickly. Harmonium is built into the north slope carved by the River Quand, the Eldest Daughter of the Ocean.”

“Yes, I know…” replied Calzjha.

Warren projected to them both, [The only river known to run east to west and to flow through a mountain range! The Eldest Daughter is a powerful, venerable spirit!]

Fazgood , “Yes. Of course. Harmonium was once a walled city beset by all sorts of enemies…ignorant tribes, sea reavers, the Prevaricate, the like. The original Rahsics, our darker humans, held this region. The Therihe, the pinkish lot I belong to, were driven here by the Prevaricate’s ruin of their land. It was here in Harmonoium that the god Enthus arrived and delivered us the Royal family. Up there –-“

He flourished his cane to point some two hundred strides across the square to the great stonewall around the city, wrapped strong like the muscled arm of an old ironsmith, but glittering like copper.

“– Is the Secure. Twenty men high, five men deep, it took King Lambent Deliverance a mere week to raise from the earth. To insure the security of the wall, great generals and guild magnates built their own residences into stone towers along the Secure, to show their commitment to bringing the peoples of the kingdom together.”

[The first example of non-Malese godwrought architecture. Its substance is called Harmonite.]

“Yes,” added the Earl, tolerating the interruption. “However the Adanikarese call it ‘god-snot’; as you know they are jealous bastards.”

[Its shape around the city spells the glyph for “flourish-thrive-protect.”]

Fazgood thought to himself, Forgot that.

“Ah!” sighed Calzjha. “To risk their families so! What bravery!”

[Overdone, but a good motivator.]

Out came his lower lip. “Overdone?”

Sensing dissension in his worthies, Fazgood interjected. “And in the century-and-a-half since, with the tribes welcomed and Prevaricate abused, we have enjoyed the Royal Peace. Harmonium flourishes as a city of culture and trade.”

[And those foolhardy showcases are now all museums, my liege?]

“Humn?”

[The generals’ residences. Are they now museums, my liege?]

“Museums and shrines, I suppose,” Fazgood smacked his lips. “Now we go to Malabar Flats to meet the ferry to the Due.”

Ahead on the brick promenade, a queue of people waited at the corner. Calzjha and Warren exchanged concerned glances, and Warren squirmed back up Fazgood’s sleeve.

Fazgood said, “My pardons, good citizens. What do you wait for?”

“The ambulator is coming,” frowned a housewife.

The Earl blinked. “Eh?”

A coal-black man grappling two tall scrollcases declared, “You’re new here.”

“I’m a son long gone, but home to visit to where my heart has always stayed. And to get a decent meal.”

The people regarded him with stern faces.

I gave away that dress too soon.

The old Rahsic sneered. “Your accent is strange.”

“Is it?” Fazgood deflated. “I suppose I will regain the knack soon enough. I left to make good fortune!”

“Ah,” the old dark human, a homemage perhaps, nodded, glancing at Fazgood’s common and ill-fit clothes.

The good fortune to have my blood stay within my skin, Fazgood mused.

The Earl smiled. “I see you’ve kept things much as I remember.”

Someone said, “We’ve kept things much as you left them, indeed!”

At the far end of the square came a rumbling, and an ambulator — (The ambulator? Fazgood wondered, is there more than one?) — patiently followed the carriages in the cart lane of the street.

The rest of the people in the queue stared, mouths writhing with suppressed smiles. Their fixed silence gave him pause. Fazgood realized that the someone had made a joke at the Earl’s expense; the ambulator was nothing like the way things used to be. He kept his composure and gave the queue a smile to show he realized his error.

Calzjha gave Fazgood a fleeting, but rebuking glare.

Maroon-coated policemen directed traffic at every corner, but they performed their duties without a second glance. No plug hats around, but that meant nothing. Hundreds of people hurried by, dozens of windows and doorways, to say nothing of scryers, guiltglassers, and dowsers working for either side of Respectability in this city. Fazgood felt his mood darken.

Being in Lanthornmount Square in broad daylight wasn’t a good idea. I was more cautious in Adanikar. And more so in Deliverance Haven. And in Birqmuir City. And in Aldheim and Kelbriche and Weiquant.

He suddenly felt tired. He looked around the bustling square.

Let them find me. I dare them.    

The last thought startled him.

The ambulator ground to stop at the head of the queue. The queue stepped slowly up through its door. Fazgood and Calzjha waited last in line.

A Thurihe wearing a dark blue coat with white buttons sat at the pilot’s seat. He held up his hand.

The driver thrust out a hand. “I’m sorry, sir. You can’t ride if you aren’t carrying baggage. I’m sorry.”

He slowly turned to look into the ambulator. To his satisfaction, he saw that all were burdened with toolbags, suitcases, children and the like.

The pilot raised an eyebrow. “Sir?”

The passengers stared back with blank annoyance, trying to erase this painfully ignorant yokel from their day. Even an old, milky Booloob held perfectly still.

“Sir!”

The Earl pointed his cane down the steps to direct Calzjha back off.

They stepped onto the sidewalk and looked at the lacquered wooden side of the vehicle. A slight aroma of pine pitch told of loving maintenance. Fazgood resisted the urge to touch the glassy sinews of ablewood, knowing that things like that weren’t done here. He looked up. From the roof, three old brown women dressed in burgundy peered down at him. The three old gray heads rose. The wailing and scraping resumed and the ambulatory trundled off. They stepped back.

Calzjha asked, “Why didn’t any of the people in line tell us?”

Fazgood watched the ambulator rumble away. He remembered an old voice, a voice from his childhood, a man long betrayed and murdered. “If you do not obey every single stupid rule of the Kingdom, you are in a very lonely hell.”

 





The Egon Lesson

25 02 2014

It’s hard to avoid being a curmudgeon when a part of my childhood culture passes on. “What do we have now?” grumps the curmudgeon. “Slice-of-life Judd Apatow bromances. Self-reflexive parodies with inside jokes like ‘Harold and Kumar’ or ‘Scary Movie’. Bobbly camera mocking of flyover America. Who violate time and space now without winking at the camera? Where are the Staypuff Marshamallowmen of yesteryear?”

The Man of Words

Harold Ramis died yesterday. One of the greatest comedians of the modern era, Ramis was a renaissance clown who wrote, directed, and acted. His movies are uniformly worth your time but, if somehow you’ve never seen Groundhog Day, do yourself an enormous favor and start there. It’s a glorious movie with a pitch perfect central performance that, years later, directly influenced one of the best Supernatural episodes ever. Plus you’ll never listen to ‘I Got You Babe’ the same way again.

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The Border Between Cute And Demonic Is In Your Sense Of Whimsy

24 02 2014





Chapter Two of “Mad Earl Faz”

19 02 2014

There is a mysterious font change on the third line….

            Obdurate rubbed his dark fingers along the granite sill of the arrow slot. Outside, the city’s new device for transportation, the ambulatory, rumbled and it’s sound swelled and mixed with the conversations behind him.

He thought of a poem he and his love read last night: Today I live in one moment of a heaven, and I am damned to a hell thereby.

A rustle of muslin behind him snapped him from his thoughts.

“I find the noise of the ambulatory so disturbing,” smiled a goodwife attendant of the Contemplation. “It jars one. Do you not agree, Adjutant?”

Obdurate had always found the Rahsic tradition of “Contemplations” ironic; he appreciated the idea of members of different vocations to share ideas and bond socially, but most fellow contemplators were perplexed by what Obdurate shared and so kept him at a polite distance.

“Oh. I beg your pardon, but it does not disturb me. At night, when I am walking, I find the sound reassuring.”

Her eyes fluttered, her attempt at conversation confused by disagreement. “That thundering reassures? Pardon my curiosity, but I do not understand.”

He shook his head. “I am sometimes taken with a restlessness at night. I stroll to…clear my head. There is…some traffic…that late. There are few on the streets –- out-outside the Secure. Deliverymen. Constabulary.”

Since childhood, Obdurate had practiced distractedness and he now considered himself a Master Artist. He could finesse to the lowest hum of preoccupation, or if necessary build it to a thundering blither. That he always seemed preoccupied with weighty matters, he knew, had helped him win this post over qualified competitors who worked with an apparent ease of conscience.

Everyone assumed that because he pondered fiscal matters for his commanding officer, the esteemed “General Greatsergeant-grandson-of-the-General”; the General being the fellow forever smashing that copper snake demon on the mural at Lanthernmount Square.

The truth: people who knew him found him odd. That tired him.

But this goodwife would be rattled into thin-lipped frustration, but not dissuaded. “But how does the sound comfort?”

“The sound reminds me,” he considered. “That there are other travelers in the night.”

Perturbed, she looked out the window. “Ah. I am sorry, but the sound bothers me. I am not sure why the devices were put in place. The elderly and the guilds used to arrange for carriages.”

“Hmm.” He looked out the window and twitched his fingers as if counting; that usually made people go away.

But she asked, “I wonder why they are no longer allowed.”

“You wonder why do not….”

“Allowed to arrange for more carriages.”

“There are…more people. Now. To transport.”

“Then why not more carriages?”

A flit of his gaze to the ceiling; would he have to break out ledgers for some peace? “Um?”

Why are there not more carriages?

“On the streets? I believe it is to keep the number of draft animals from overwhelming the streets. Our king gave his blessing.”

This was a sure conversation stopper.

She puffed. “Yes. I meant no offense, but the noise disturbs me. I do endure it for the good of all.”

“I have always…remarked on your wonderful patience, Goodwife.”

Obdurate sighed and gave up waiting for his usual conversation partner. The goodwife then spoke of the moments she had that day: when she had realized that working with your hands in the dark, like an actuated bullet assembler had to, must be so terribly exhausting; and that her own laugh now sounded so much like her father’s, bless him; and that souls were lifted by the color yellow because it reminded us of the sun.

Obdurate considered what she said, and was touched by her earnestness.

She asked, “Did you come to a realization today?”   

“Not being a student of magic, I would not know of the practicality. But this occurred to me when tallying the columns of materials expenditures last week, and I am taken with it: Objects have spirits, and spirits are known to communicate with us through numbers. Therefore, if properly done, adding the day’s expenditures could be a type of numeromancy. One could attune to a Great Spirit of Double Entry Bookkeeping and discern the enemy’s expenditures, and thereby know the enemy’s strengths and disposition. The accountant could prevail upon the Great Bookkeeper to scramble the enemy’s bookkeeping and have them receive too many barrels of salt or not enough tea. And then it occurred to me that perhaps that’s already being done, either on purpose or accidentally, and that is why supplies are shipped in the wrong amount or to the wrong destination. If such a spirit existed.”

The goodwife blushed. “That is a bit beyond me.”

He shrugged and sighed to that familiar refrain. “Yes. I am sorry.”

“Oh! Here is our hostess!” The goodwife’s relief was also familiar.

Obdurate turned and there she stood, at long last. She walked in measured pace in conversation with an old Thurihe man; she seeming like caramel to the man’s wrinkled white parchment. She glanced at Obdurate. That look rang his soul like a bell.  

Goodwife Greatsergeant smiled. “Pardon my intrusion, Adjutant, but I could not help but overhear that you walk about the city at night. May I introduce Squire Tezumbrage, Mezzo-Baritone for the Royal Complete Appellate Court?”

Obdurate bowed.

At first, this was why he took the dusty traditions of the First Army of Invitation Appropriations Posting: the opportunities to converse with the exemplary of Harmonium.

Among The Paragon Families of the Kingdom, those refined since birth to be living symbols of the Royal Law and Compact were themselves inspiring and humbling. But he lived only to be in the presence of Respiration Greatsergeant.

Goodwife Greatsergeant sipped her tea. “My good uncle had many insomnia cures.”

Obdurate asked, “Indeed, Goodwife?”

“All invariably used barley whisky or blunt objects.”

“Did your uncle have insomnia, Goodwife?”

“Terribly. You might have seen his portrait. He is the flushed-faced and bumpy-headed fellow propped up in my sitting room.”

Goodwife Carper giggled. The grandsquire’s expression remained as still as “The Sanctuary of Enthus” before the Secure’s Gate. The Goodwife’s nudge ellicited a grin from the stone-like face.

Respiration said,“The grandsquire and I were contemplating languages.”

The grandsquire’s voice rumbled through to Obdurate’s knees.

“Oh yes. My sons are touring the Adanikar courts and colleges next year. Do you speak Adanikarese, Adjutant?”

“Grandsquire, I speak…only enough to get somebody else slapped.”

The grandsquire nodded. “You should have been a tactician.”

All laughed silently.

“Do you and Goodwife Greatsergeant converse well?”

“We recite poetry. It engages more than speaking about mundane matters.”

Respiration said, “An ancient, esteemed poet named Trah-sh-fah.”

What is she up to now?

“Trah-sh-fah” was a nonsense word she and Obdurate used when they couldn’t think of the proper Adanikarese word. It blended well during recitations, and they suspected it meant “twist-nose.”

This intrigued the squire. “Trah-shah-fah? I have read some Adanikar poetry, but never heard that name.”

“More whistle in the ‘t’, and just ‘sh’.”

“Ah!”

She asked Obdurate, “What were we discussing about it?”

He concentrated on his feet to keep his face from flushing. “That the poem is ancient and venerated. And becoming more ancient and venerated with each passing day.”

“We prompt each other’s pronunciation. The poem goes…”

She spoke in Adanikarese:

            “What is it that forces along the rain

            Caressing the soft yearning earth

With a thousand thousand fingers

So that the trees give sigh into the night?”

Respiration gave translation, then asked, “What was the rest of it, Adjutant?”

She maddened him this way, in that she took such risks. Poems like this from married women were frowned upon in any language. It angered him and thrilled him.

He added in Adanikarese:

 

            “What is it that forces the many-finger rain?

It is a huge wet masseuse containing terrible internal wind.”

 

Her mouth stretched to contain her guffaw.

His heart pounding, he pretended a translation to the others,

            “The crest of the thunderhead breaks and

            Stretches soft and languid into the night.”

 

She straightened her back and bowed. Her eyes warmed with admiration, but her mouth tightened. She kept challenging him to leave, trying to frighten him with recklessness.

He met her eyes. I will not go.

Grandsquire Tezumbrage suppressed a smile. “I heard more wind than rain in that storm, captain.”

Did they reveal themselves? Did he suspect? The possibility paralyzed him.

Yet the captain thrilled. He had made the grandsquire smile.

Respiration bowed to Goodwife Carper. “Goodwife, you look flushed. Squire, would you do the honor of accompanying us to the victory terrace? The air moves well there.”

“Yes. I would be honored. Would you excuse us, Adjutant?”

Goodwife Carper touched her pale face in puzzlement as she turned away.

Obdurate waved. “Certainly. Enjoy the sun.”

As the three strolled away, Obdurate heard the great judge whisper wryly. “We’ll leave the adjutant to his wind. Are you sure he knows the language well, Goodwife?”

She looked over her shoulder at Obdurate with mock doubt.

Obdurate walked to the refreshments and used the movement to conceal a deep sigh.

That poem was rather good. Our improvisational skills are improving.

            That night behind the ivy garden, they would have a good laugh about the risk they took in front of the squire.  Obdurate would share his thought of the theoretical Bookkeeping Spirit and he knew, with a profound relief, she would be intrigued and add to the idea or pick it apart. They would kiss and laugh and whisper in an antiquated foreign tongue. She would touch him until his thunderhead broke, and then there would be nothing.

Then eventually, General Greatsergeant, the monster, will discover and he will kill me in a duel for knowing his family’s secret treachery, and overtly, for sullying his marriage.   

            He saw an officer at the door and knew it time for another meeting. Obdurate tread softly on the stone staircases to keep the echoes from disturbing ruminations, and walked down the street to Lanthernmount Square. He made it into the Civic Disposition building, and into the third blue room. He sat at the traditional spot on the tile floor.

            Adjutant Hakek-akakel from the Naval Squadron Command looked up beside him. His sharp lizard-like smile made his bright-red chin feathers splay.

            Hakek-akakel clucked. “Mischief, mischief, my boy.”

            At those words, Obdurate’s preoccupations made him blush, until he realized Hakek-akakel spoke. Exults considerd it courteous to keep company awake through riddles and odd interjections. To return the favor Obdurate lengthened his stammers, which he knew Hakek-akakel appreciated.

            At the front of the room, the Public Works adjutant entered in a swirl of saffron muslin and followed by two young, puffy-eyed clerks. He took his seat before the great round mirror, the clerks seated at the foot of the dais, ready to hand him any paper at his request.

            The Public Works adjutant smoothed his uniform jacket and intoned the age-old contralto. “Consternation and regret are set aside. All are enjoined to help all abide. We begin with the civil agenda regarding transport scheduling…”

            The Civil adjutant told all of how the increased use of the ambulators relieved the pedestrian flow to the foremost of the Eight Neighborhoods, for which the Ward Champion then thanked him graciously. The Merchant Magnate adjutant told of brisk trade and receiving good value for merchandise from the Trade Houses representing the nations in the Foreign Due.

            The Craftsguild adjutant announced that masterworks would be presented to His Royal Highness a month hence at the Festival of Glories. Stuffsguild prepared for the autumn festivals, and their masterworks would also be presented, which included a shimmercake taller than a three storey house and a weedloaf which could feed five and be made with a mere handful of seeds; such boasts always caused friendly remarks of competition between the craftsguilds. The Ward Champion presented her list of concerns from the Eight Neighborhoods, but no grave concerns, and she amused all with updates of neighborhood competitions. Hakek-akakel declared that the Royal Naval Cavalry Squadron would be doing maneuvers off Yahermarain Shoal tomorrow, and could possibly be the scene of many marvels, or dull as mud.

Obdurate updated all:

“The Army of Invitation has reached the farthest point of the Ijkalla Archepelego. It has encountered the respect the inhabitants feel for our Divine King, and the Legion works to improve the inhabitants’ keeps and their roads.”

            The Public Works adjutant motioned for the Police adjutant to address the group.

            “This morning at dawn, strangers broke our customs. Two strangers dressed as a widow and her daughter breached the Eldest Daughter’s Shrine through means yet to be determined.”

            Audacious.

            “A search of the disembarked was poorly executed, and panic broke out. These strangers broke through onto the street. They did arrest a rogue philosopher.”

            The Public Works adjutant’s gaze swept to the back of the room. “The Brigade Magnate will cooperate with the police.”

            The piping voice of the Brigade adjutant: “As always, adjutant.”

            The usual terseness and contempt flavored their exchange. The Scout Brigades had been so lax and arrogant, few expected much of them.

            And so on into the warm afternoon, through the Physicians and the Scholars and the Pathetics, all had the same mundane news to communicate and needs to be met.

His mind wandered, as always to Respiration. His heart panged and to distract it, he considered the book he had just read; a tale of sacrifice and enlightenment of the genre called “Dusk-Thicket Tales.” It was like a parable or cautionary, but this tale differed in that it used a still-living person as its subject.

Eventually, the Public Works adjutant intoned. “All are dispatched to do their task. Your life work is all we ask.”

In the bustling hallway, Hakek-akakel guided Obdurate to the wall. “Have you yet read the book, Obdurate? Galavanting the world! Spying! Stealing! Slaying abominations!”

            “I had just finished it. Thank you for the loan. I confess I found it exciting.”

            “You took a whole three days to read a book! You must have been busy! How go your experiments with double-entry numeromancy?”

            Obdurate glanced around the crowded hallway. “I was just…joking. It would be…too dangerous for me to experiment like that. I could be fined or censured.”

            “But it is startling! Discerning a creature through its delineations, instead of its presence. Charms of concealment would be worthless. Using your numeromancy would be like predicting a boat’s course by seeing its wake. Wakes in a sea of numbers.”

            Obdurate glanced around again, looking for someone who may overhear them. “Yes. I suppose it would.”

            Hakek-akakel tugged Obdurate’s cuff and shouted. “Numbers! Numbers-numbers-numbers-numbers-numb –-“

            Passersby gave them disinterested glances. Obdurate laughed at his own uneasiness, which was Hakek-akakel’s intention.

            “There are deserts of space between a step and a tumble.”

            “Thank yo-o-o-ou, adjutant. Perhaps…I will…pursue the matter.”

            “Ha!”

            “But why…haven’t you…given the matter its due?”

            “Our discerners are too busy with weather determinations to experiment. And I have been given a possibly boring assignment from the police.”

            “The police?”

            “Today they wear blue-green coats.”

            “Yes, tomorrow…they may not. What…is the assignment?”

            “I am to coordinate naval assistance in the search for the interlopers. Customs has scant physicality for their discerners to work with. It will be a glorious frustration.”

            “Ah. Military aid to find two smugglers?”

            Hakek-akakel giggled and nodded. A russet-feathered Exult wearing a merchant’s suit passed, and giggled out of courtesy.

            Obdurate whispered. “Ah. Is that not…odd?”

            “Quite unexpected and unusual. I must hurry. My time is the Royal Navy’s time.”

Hakek-akakel turned and scuttled down the hallway.

Obdurate called. “Life is ever a mystery, Adjutant Hakek-akakel.”

Hakek-akakel waved behind him. “One that is always licking your face, Adjutant Obdurate Childteacher.”





NEW STORY PUBLISHED ON PSEUDOPOD.ORG

18 02 2014

“The Metal and Its Mold” is Chapter Three of “The Flesh Sutra”, a novel to be released later this Spring from NobleFusion Press.





Pogo “Alice”

16 02 2014

A remix of “Alice in Wonderland.”





A Fantasy Novel: “Mad Earl Faz” Chapter One

12 02 2014

(WordPress will not underline the first line or indent consistently.)

CHAPTER ONE

             The widow ought to thank me for stealing her dress. It’s dawn and I’m already soaking in sweat.

So thought Fazgood, Earl of Weiquant as he puffed under the widow’s white mourning veil. His shoes felt like gravy boats on his feet. And the damned ceoclaw leaf he had eaten must have been an unusually potent dose; his stomach clenched and surged.

             He affected the quaver of an old woman. “Bless me, Eldest Daughter River Quand. May you always flow fertile and pure.”

Please let me end my madness and get us all out alive.

            At the rail to his right, Calzjha affected primness to cover vigilance, and looked blindingly beautiful in his white mourning dress. In Calzjha’s carpet bag lay Warren, of the Birqmuir Mountains Banded Weasel breed, nervously shredding a copy of the small book “Know You The Treasure That Is Harmonium?”, among items of convenience.

            And around Fazgood and this retinue stood the thirty-two other passengers of the barge, all arrived to the great city of Harmonium, trying in polite Kingdom fashion to edge away from the ill, mumbling old woman, yet the men tried to sidle close to the fetching Calzjha, as men are wont to do.

At the front and rear of the barge, porters sang and poled the craft between the shining stone levees of the canal, ignorant as those stones to the danger hidden in their charge.

            All this made the Earl growl.

As a boy, I vowed to return home at the head of an army! Here, to my murdering home! Now, I infiltrate Harmonium in stolen widow-wear.

            Her underpants made his crotch feel like a swamp. The widow’s sympathy doll swaddled against his stomach, and god knows what moist masculinity the widow herself felt at that moment, where-ever she may be.

Above their heads, green banners lettered in white hung wet from the mists along the top of the levees: one on their right read “May The Great Eldest Daughter Be As Tranquil As She Is Beautiful”; the left read “The Great Eldest Daughter Provides The Heart’s Blood Of Our Nation.”  The banners and the canal led to Great Eldest Daughter’s Gate, the customs complex for Harmonium. The Earl thought it most sensible to infiltrate his home from there. No one expected a direct sneak. It had worked before so many times before. So many, many times before.

Calzjha leaned to him.

            “Mother…” Calzjha spoke loudly in passable Rahsic for the sake of their disguise. “Still the medicine disturbs you. Let me see your face.”

Calzjha lifted the veil. He then whispered in the Adanikarese, foreign to near-by ears:

            “You are unusually pale for ceoclaw leaf. You do look much older, but I spared your dosage.“

            Fazgood’s Adanikarese was not very good. “’Sparing’? Do you told me I eat ceoclaw leaf, and you ate me ceoclaw leaf, too?”

            “’You fed me ceoclaw leaf’.”

Calzjha glanced at the others, tension straining his smile. “That ceoclaw leaf seemed limp and stale, and I was concerned that it would be weak. I knew you would argue. So I ground some into the fried bread you ate for breakfast.”

            “The ceoclaw was still fresh! Now are two god-poxied goat puke in me.”

            Calzjha bit his lip and lowered the veil.

            Fazgood whispered. “Now I look very god-poxied old, eh? Now I am ready for dead? Because I am ready for dead.”

            From the white carpetbag, Warren projected a thought into Fazgood’s mind, [When the time comes, discharge him immediately, my liege!]

            The Earl replied, [Nobody’s discharging anyone. Except me discharging my breakfast.]

            Despite his nausea, that turn of words amused him as well.

            But Warren’s indignation churned the man’s belly further. [Calzjha’s presumption is galling, great Earl! Today it is an emetic for purposes of disguise, tomorrow Malese water-of-death for his profit and glory!]

            Warren poked his black eye to the opening in the bag’s cinch. Having caught Calzjha’s gaze, Warren communicated with that young being as well as Fazgood.

Warren projected to both of them, [Do we need a temple’s escapee involved in our –]

            “Enough!” Fazgood caught his snarl and turned it into a feeble cough.

Calzjha whispered in Adanikarese. “I could feed some fish very easily –-“

            The Earl coughed. “Everyone is nervous. We will go through customs safe. We have the three good plans.”

            It is bad enough that they accompany me in my madness. I mustn’t let them down.

            The barge completed a turn. Everyone shaded their eyes against the sunlight.

            Warren thought, [Dawn is breaking, my liege! We may miss the change of guard! The new guards will have rested eyes!]

            From the front of the barge, a pole man called. “There’s a queue to disembark.”

            Beside that pole man stood the patsy who the Earl had set up as the decoy. The man ran nervous fingers over his sideburns. His right hand squirmed up the left cuff of his suit jacket, undoubtedly fingering the useless “stealthy travels” charm Fazgood had sold him.

            Fazgood whispered in Adanikarese. “Still we have the sympathic dolls and the clothes. And I did pray to dozens of gods and spirits this week entire.”

            Calzjha whispered. “I danced ‘The Fox King Eludes Destruction.’”

            “And Calzjha danced ‘The Fox King…’” The Earl faltered with the translation. “…dance. And Warren spied out our patsy. Complain when we are in Harmonium and comfortable clothes wearing!”         

The Earl found the bulge of the sympathic doll secured at his waistband under the dress.

            “Adamantine Millproctor. My name is Adamantine Millproctor.”

            The sympathic doll had been wrought to help aid the health of Goodwife Adamantine Millproctor, descended of the kingdom’s Rahsic culture of Humanity. The doll had clippings of her hair, fingernails and other personal excreta within. Using someone else’s sympathic doll clouded magical detection by the customs lotcasters.

            In truth, Goodwife Millproctor was at that moment a week’s sailing due west, in the colonial island mansion of her brother, wringing her brawny hands over the loss of her luggage, and feeling strangely moist and musky. Meanwhile, her daughter’s finery now clothed Calzjha.

Calzjha’s long black hair swept into an irreproachable bun beneath a small hat. The veil arranged to discreetly reveal a smooth, youthful brow and eyes of caramel. Calzjha’s face tapered to a sharp, firm chin, accentuated by full lips and cut angles of his cheekbones. His bodice suggested ample bosom contained by its brocaded cinch. Millproctor’s daughter would be dismayed that Calzjha looked far more fetching in her wardrobe than she ever had. Doubly-dismayed, as the Earl had insisted that Calzjha, who despite appearing human was of the faraway Zhif race, remain male for the duration of their stay in Harmonium.

            The Earl chanted. My name is Adamantine Millproctor. My name is Adamantine Millproctor…

Then his tongue felt a tickle. A hair prickled his front teeth. He licked another hair on his lip. He looked at his fingers. Three, no four, fine brown hairs! His handkerchief bristled with brindled fur. Warren had shed all over everything.

He spat and cleaned his lips with his fingers. He felt his chin and discovered more strands of fur.

Yes, he realized. I am actually in a new Hell that no-one has ever discovered.

Fazgood then brought his hand under the veil for a round of truly disturbing coughing.

The polemen all gave a heave and set the barge into motion again.

The old man in the front called. “We’re next, folks!”

He sang:

            “Welcome you home! Home from the sea!

            Safe you are now! Safe always be!

            Welcome you…”

 

All on the barge shifted to the exit ramp.

The barge drifted around the last corner, and above their gaze stood the city of Harmonium.

A city of three tiers that climbed up a hillside cut by the river long ago. Each of the tiers arrayed brick buildings topped with curved red shingles. Staring at the shingled roofs created the impression of waves along each of the tiers, so much that the eye confused and lost any individual structure, until the highest tier, where the sloping tops of keeps fluttered with bright banners.

Cold wonder struck Fazgood down to his knees. Home. Thirty years away and I’m home.

Beyond that third tier could be glimpsed the great god-wrought wall called the Triumph Secure, gleaming faint copper even from this distance. Following the Secure to their left, toward the northwest, it led to the great pink bowl of the Citadel, home of the Royal Family. Above the wall and buildings, the sky bustled with kites and birds.

“Look, a Cumulid!” cried a boy.

Above the Citadel floated an opalescent swell of what one would believe a cloud. But all who knew to look knew to look for the odd puffs that resembled a protruding brow, above the glad eyes of a Cumulid. That member of the sky-shepherding race watched streams of tumbling mist passed above.

From ahead of the barge, music and voices echoed, until finally the canal opened into a walled inlet. Before them lay a series of docks made of concrete and granite. The docks crowded with barges unloading hundreds of people.

From the Canton of Exultance, knee-high, giggling Exults hopped, their scaly grey skin and colorful feathers contrasting with the dull-colored Harmoniad fashion; a moss-like Fabri undulated by, with swatches of progeny squirming on its back; a couple of gangly, purple Adactoid clad in the blue of businessmen argued details with waving hands. Above their heads drifted the rippling sphere of a Booloob draped in blue, warbling its contribution to their conversation.

In the crowd too waited strangers to the Kingdom: men and women from the Empire of Birqmuir, tall and red and glowering, their blue tattoos matching their imperial blue sashes (Fazgood dropped his veil slightly to avoid being recognized as their nobility).

As their barge passed the first dock, other barges disembarked and filed to stand on a portion of the dock between five tall orange banners. From the ramparts above, music trilled from a flute and drum quartet.

A thrill pierced Fazgood’s chanting. He remembered the sprightly tune from his childhood, but struggled to remember its title and words.

From that dock, a ramp ran parallel to the river and doubled back to reach the rampart, where an iron gate blocked it. Beyond the gate, customs guards in magenta wool topcoats stood around another guard who crouched.

Fazgood whispered, “A lotcaster.”

Calzjha whispered, “I am Tensile Millproctor.”

The next dock held the same, except that instead of a band behind the rampart, an orator recited something too faint for them to hear. Two men wearing small-crowned plug hats leaned upon their elbows beside the orator.

[There, my liege! Beside the speaker!]

The brims of their hats shadowed their gaze upon the river traffic. Yellow ascots glowed in the sunlight. Fazgood’s stomach chilled.

“They are Ivy-and-Waterwell Brigade. They have always run the waterfront.”

Calzjha regarded the men. “People like them regulate the criminal society? I expected people more…awake.”

The Brigade men turned and ambled away from the fence into the city.

Fazgood gave a small sigh of relief. Those two knocked off early, as I expected. I am Adamantine Millproctor. I am Adamantine Millproctor. Hopefully the old wheat-wench won’t have created another sympathic doll and made this one useless. And mourning clothes are the best disguise. No one wants to bother a widow.

Absently his right hand stirred, the jar’s weight guiding his fingers to its center of gravity.

The barge poled into dock five, five being the number for “endurance and persistence” in Adanikarese numeromancy, but also the number for “retreat and grow anew” in Birqmuirish numerology. Fazgood irked at the inconclusive calculation.

Calzjha asked loudly in Rahsic, “Do we have musicians or an orator, Mother?”

Fazgood grunted. Then added a billious croak for effect. A man standing near shifted farther away.

A final slosh and the barge scraped onto the dock. The dock’s ramp wore away into brown at the level where the river rose every spring.

The old boatman called, “All are home to Harmonium!”

The passengers gave a tired cheer. They filed off the front of the barge. As custom in the Kingdom, Calzjha walked before the widowed mother. In his haste, Calzjha bumped into the patsy. The patsy grasped his threadbare lapels and stepped back.

The man wanted to help bring Truth to his people, so he had told Fazgood back at the quarantine port. The Earl thought the man a boob.

The patsy stammered, not recognizing the duo. “I am so sorry, Miss.”

Calzjha patted his arm. “No. It is I who should beg your pardon.”

The widow gave his daughter a sharp poke and they stepped forward, leaving the man chewing his mustache in puzzlement.

The widow’s shoes crunched the seashells mixed in the concrete. They followed the crowd to the red banners arranged on the dock. The pole men waited on the barge with the tagged trunks and cases, waiting for the lotcaster ritual to complete and the porters to remove the baggage.

On the ramparts above the passengers, a stout man with the ruddy face and thick white hair of a beerhouse patron. He opened his arms and boomed, “I bring to you the tale thrilling the populace throughout the Kingdom, written by one of our native authors. It is a story full of adventure and peril for your enlightenment.”

Calzjha smiled. “Oh! A drama in the morning to rouse the blood!”

The orator sang:

“Whereas Truth is, by far, stranger than Fiction, we who dwell in the marts of civilization know, and

Whereas we can only wonder of those who live in scenes where the sword and pistol are in constant use, to protect and take life…”

 

            The orator’s tones resonated, though; deep and exciting like distant thunder:

 

“We must know what strange tales are told of thrilling perils met and subdued! Of romantic incidents far removed from our stern existence!

 

Beyond our beloved lands are such lives full of danger, and tales that stir the blood that can be told over and over again!

 

Of bold Privateers and reckless Buccaneers who have swept along heathen coasts! Of fierce naval battles and sea chases! Of brave deeds onshore in the saddle and on foot! Of bloodied trails followed to the bitter end and savage encounters in forest wilds!

 

And it is beyond the shadow of civilization that we find the hero of thrilling adventures, fierce combats, deadly feuds and wild rides! One and all are true to the letter, as hundreds now living can testify!”

 

“Of them all, who has not heard

of the famous one with the bravest heart?

The one whose throwing hand is surer than all others with blade and needle?

The one who is boldest in seeking evil in its securest lair?

Who has not heard the name of Fazgood, the Mad Earl of Weiquant?”

 

            The false widow’s breath collapsed with a loud squeak. Calzjha’s eyes widened with astonishment.

            Warren thought, [Oh! Oh my great Earl! No!]

            Earl Fazgood of Weiquant snarled. “Zhazh!”

            He slipped his hand under his veil, wiped his face with a circular motion, tugged his nose, spat dry in his palm and wiped his palm over his chest. Calzjha followed suit, and the rustling in the carpetbag proof of Warren’s diligence in making the warding sign against the great Adanikarese god, Zhazh the Great Permutator, Who Tells The Eternal Set-Up Line.

            Fazgood muttered in Adanikarese, “Concentrate very amounts.”

            I am Adamantine Millproctor! I am Adamantine Millproctor!

            The unwitting orator, a tool of either a fathomless power or of malted hops, continued:

 

“It is a magic name, seemingly! For in the uttermost parts of the earth it is known among all races!

 

Mad Fazgood will be writ in history as a strange hero! One who in wanton search of riches faced the most fearful creatures and the most splendid wonders!”

 

            They looked to the customs guards behind the ramparts and beyond the thick, barred gate.

 

“We recall a few names that have stood out in the boldest relief in history, and they are Prince Carnelian Might, Lord General Greatsergeant, Lord Banneret, Admiral Breaker-ridge, and of these names we celebrate the finest of our men-at-arms. But our curiosity is teased by one who struck such blows at our unspeakable enemies without the aid of his countrymen. That last being would be Mad Fazgood, The Best Man of Trickery.”

 

            The Earl looked to the top of the last ramp and watched the maroon customs-men behind the iron gate. Those officials looked down at another crouching at their feet. The crouching one, seeming pink and youthful (as would make sense, the young would get the overnight work) rubbed his hands together and scattered devices upon the ground. The Earl sighed with relief.

            He uses lotsticks! Good! I am Adamantine Millproctor. The information I bought was correct! I am Adamantine Millproctor. Not like a threat-arrow, which would point straight at us. The First Plan goes well! I am…

            The malty orator recited:

                        “Whereas I know the man well, having seen him amid the greatest dangers, shared with him his blanket and his campfire’s warmth, I feel entitled to write of him as a hero of heroes, and in the following pages sketch his remarkable career from boyhood to manhood.”

The clink of copper medallions punctuated the recitation. Presently, the boy stood and brought his hat to proper position and spoke to another customs guard.

Thought the Earl to his familiar, [They had to confirm something with copper coins-of-sight. Be ready to spring The Second Plan.]

            The Earl suppressed the urge to look at his fellows on the dock; he knew them to be the typical late summer travelers to the city. Three young mothers with children but no nannies; these were soldier’s wives visiting their husbands at their posts in the colonies. Some dozen middle-aged men in well-kept suits and new shoes: merchants and bank agents. The merchants gathered mostly near Calzjha, waiting for their chance to impress a striking woman.

Fazgood banked on the guard’s suspicion of the odder-looking repatriates: A thin, deep-bronze human in a foreign tunic; the shabby patsy; and three Adactoid craftsmen, these with broad shoulders of craftsmen and purple skin deepened from the sun, their tools waiting at their feet like patient dogs.

Would the guard captain consider that this oddness happens at the shift change, when patience tires, and then become doubly-dilligent?

That was key to The Second Plan.

            Metal clanged, and a guard unlatched the gate. The captain, the lotcaster and four guards marched down the ramp. The turn at the landing was especially tidy.

            The captain announced to the puzzled crowd, “We will examine your belongings and intentions. Your cooperation is expected.”

            Every person in the crowd hugged her family members close or glanced with suspicion at his business associates.

            Fluxion, the captain is a professional. He only hints at brutality. I need panic.

            The officer flicked his baton. The guards poked and questioned, and the lotcaster brought out five long lotsticks. The young boy crouched and cast.

            The Earl leaned left slightly and peered between two merchants. The five sticks had landed flat before the caster with four joining at the top and the fifth pointing to the crowd. Another more vigorous cast and clatter; the sticks scattered and spun and bounced. Again, the four joining at a peak and the fifth protruding from the top.

            The officer and nearby staff gaped at the sticks. As one, they regarded the disembarked crowd with shock.

            [Those sticks say is what I believe, squire?]

            [Yes, my liege. The lotcaster has cast The Blazing Comet. He has found you.]

            How had the dolls failed? Fresh-stolen dolls had always worked before.

[Ready The Third Plan.]

The guards began at the front of the crowd, to the left, following procedure, which is why the Earl stayed in the middle of the crowd to the right of the man with the mutton-chop whiskers.

            The orator fidgeted and gave unsettled, confused glances at the guards. He raised his voice still louder to dispel the tension. The captain interjected questions:

“Where are you traveling from?”

“Born in this city of Rahsic in 843…”

“Have anything stowed away, hmm?”

“…having been raised by the Harmonium lodge of the clan Faz…”

“Make enough money on this trip? Need a little extra?”

“…Fazgood was inured to hardship and lived by his wits by the time he reached his tenth year. Being a precocious youth, his adventurous spirit…”

“You did miss hearth and royal guidance, hmm?”

“…led him into all sorts of deeds of mischief and daring, which well served to lay the foundation for the later acts of his life.”

            A tall black-skinned Rahsic merchant glanced around at the nervous officials. “Perhaps the grandmother and her charming daughter would like to go first? The mother is ill, and she would be out of the sun and resting sooner.”

            The captain fixed an unblinking gaze upon the fool. “None may leave until all are finished! Determine this man again. Be thorough. Tell your name!”

            The young lotcaster passed his fine wire of alloyed percevium over the merchant. The lotcaster chanted and gauged the twitching of the wire. The captain squinted and gauged the flinching of the merchant. The merchant puffed his cheeks and reddened at the insinuations and the brusqueness, but said nothing lest he raise the captain’s suspicion even more.

The guardsmen resumed their search. They reached the patsy.

            The man fumbled in his coat pocket in despair. The captain flicked the baton at that buried hand. A guard pulled it from the jacket and handed the captain a tiny metal sphere. The captain examined its engravings.

            “This trinket…is remarkably worthless. Did you believe this could deceive our lotcaster? It is not a concealing magic at all! Lotcaster!”

            The boy squinted into the captain’s palm. “Adanikarese, sir. Looks to be a charm to the Spirit of Clean Laundry.”

            At this news, the patsy paled. “It…it is nothing. An old man of Thurihe and some boy sold it to me when I traveled here from Adanikar.”

The captain chuckled. “Did you spend much on the heathen trinket? It works splendidly! It has washed Luck right off of you! Search him!”

The guards tore the coat from the man and found it had not cloth enough to conceal a flea. His shoes flapped thin as leaves. The lotcaster seized the man’s bag and dumped it out onto the dock. He waved the bag and heard a crinkle.

            The captain smiled. “And what have we here, Lotcaster?”

            The boy rummaged through his discovery and withdrew thin reed papers. He read the tiny print.

            “’Examinations On The Purpose Of Intelligence In Nature’! ’Declaring The Tautology Of The Senses’!”

            In joyful disgust, the lotcaster called, “He is a philosopher, Captain!”

            The crowd cried out and shrank from the frayed, tired man. The orator fell silent and swayed. The patsy’s gaze grew distant.

            The captain considered, looking at the philosopher with great doubt.

Will the captain believe this miscreant is The Blazing Comet?

            But the boyish lotcaster had taken up the captain’s jesting. “Can you can reason a way for cobblestones to pave themselves onto roads, eh? For the rest of your life, eh? No pens or treatises on the King’s highways!”

            At this last remark, the patsy declared, “I learned on the highways and I learned on the oceans! The winds of free contemplation have always carried me thus!”

            There’s my patsy! I knew he would not go down without a speech!

Fazgood shrieked as an old woman. “A philosopher! May Enthus spare us!”

            The guards seized the philosopher’s arms. His sideburns trembled and he cried, “I have spoken with the sages of many lands! There are as many truths in the world of our minds as with the spirits!”

            The lotcaster gasped at the blasphemy. “Captain!”

            The crowd cringed in terror. The men gathered between the women and children.

            Fazgood wailed. “The children! Please spare the children!”

            With the relief of the condemned, words spilled from the philosopher’s lips. “Why? Can’t you for a moment imagine that all we live is an illusion of the senses?”

            “Oh mother!” wept Calzjha.

            Others took up cries for mercy and struggled against the guards.

            “Let us go!” Fazgood cried. “Before the gods strike us all!”

            Begged the philosopher, “Or that we can use our minds to create a more wholesome existence?”

            The women and children, a dozen strong, cried and fled up the ramp, taking up the cry: “Away or the gods will strike us all!”

            Thirty panicked people clambered up the ramp. Pushed and fought at the landing at the halfway point. The guards at the gate gaped at the stampede.

            The captain shouted over the din. “Lock the gate!”

            Calzjha’s purse opened. Lifting his skirt-hem, Calzjha cried. “A rat! A rat! Help!”

            The men spilled away from the top of the ramp, leaving Fazgood, Calzjha, and the other women at the gate. Bewildered men stumbled back down around the landing. The women and children pushed shrieking against the gate. Fazgood crouched within that crowd, working the lock.

            Below, the captain fought against the men to get up the ramp. His knee struck a toolbag with a clank of iron, and he bellowed in pain.

            That hulking Adactoid laborer shouted. “What sort of mad river rats do you have here? I’ve never seen anything like that!”

Warren raced back and forth between the ramp battlements, growling and chittering. The captain pushed past the Adactoids and stepped to the cause of the disturbance.

All looked to the captain. Fazgood had already plucked a slip of iron from his sleeve and rattled the gate’s lock. Knowing his master’s task still unfinished, Warren resumed hopping, squealing and running in circles.

            The captain swung his baton. Warren gave a shriek and dodged. The blow scoured the concrete, sending chips flying. The captain took advantage of the gap and leapt up the ramp past the weasel to protect the women and children at the top of the ramp. Separated from the Earl and Calzjha, Warren froze in terror.

            Fazgood pushed the gate open onto two tall, surprised guards.

            “Flee! Flee!” he quavered. The handle of the cane lanced into their larynxs. Eyes bulging, they fell back to cough.

            The passengers spilled past those soldiers and through to the street.

But the Earl saw Warren’s predicament.

If he dies I’ll never forgive myself —

The Earl flicked his right hand and sent a streak of blue.

The jar of Herbwright’s crunched into the captain’s left eye. He cried out and stumbled blind down the ramp.

            A man called. “Watch out, you!”

The captain tumbled against bodies, pushing them back against the battlement of the landing. Rough concrete punched him in the small of his back and he doubled over and fell –-

Fazgood and Calzjha heard the splash from the gate. Warren scurried up Fazgood’s skirt and latched onto the cloth of the underbreeches. Fazgood and Calzjha elbowed their way through the crowd to the street.

The Earl thrilled again as he looked around at The Street of Precious Blood for the first time in thirty years. With Calzjha, he walked down the slope from the battlement, their shoes scuffing the concrete, the matronly din echoing behind them. Yawning stevedores and porters hurried past them, attracted by the noise of women, and adding to the confusion.

            The Earl thought, [A stalwart acting performance, comrade Warren! You were the essence of ferocity!]

            [Thank you for your aid, my liege! An astonishing throw! He must have been twenty full paces away!]

            [Pah! A small effort compared to such talent!]

            Inspired, Fazgood limped with his new burden and quavered, “My leg is so gouty! Who will help an old widow?”

            A rickshaw clattered up the slope. It carried a boy and two men with plug hats and yellow scarves.

            One of the men thumped the rickshaw driver. “Stop!”

            Calzjha and Fazgood froze.

            The younger Brigade man pointed to the driver. “Help these poor ladies in their time of sorrow! We’ll walk the rest of the way!”

            The other, older man growled. “We don’t have time! Something’s happening up there!”

            “Then run! My mother died this month! I’ll not be a selfish fart like you!”

            Calzjha let a small puff of relief and smiled. He used his sudden mirth at the good fortune to appear flattered. “Oh thank you sir! You are such a gentleman!”

            The Brigade man offered his seat as his partner and the boy grumbled and climbed out.

The first man looked upon Fazgood with genuine grief. “It pained me so to see you limping, grandmother.”

Fazgood muttered as he slid into the rickshaw, “So good of you. Such a gentlemen, yes.”

“My mother died suddenly and I miss her so. Would it…would it be an imposition to ask to kiss your cheek? I can tell that you miss your husband very much.”

Fazgood coughed loudly. “I fear that I am ill, good young man.”

“My mother had been ill and I wish I could kiss her cheek a hundred times!”

Behind them, the gate clanged shut. There was shouting and the crowd’s din ebbed.

Fazgood took a deep breath. “Then be quick, sir, lest you be infected.”

The Brigade man stepped before Fazgood, lifted the veil, and leaned to kiss. Then his puckered lips sucked in as if they desired to be swallowed.

The man kissed quickly. He trotted around the rickshaw to Calzjha.

He whispered, “I’m so sorry. Be strong.”

“Bless you,” Calzjha replied.

The man and boy ran to the gate.

Fazgood wiped sweat, crumbs and brindled hair from his face.

What was that all about?

The old rickshaw driver ogled Calzjha. Fazgood thumped the man’s back to chastise his lack of respect.

            “To The Plaza of Memories and be quick!”








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