It’s Spring! I’m Going Pruning!

31 03 2014





“MAD EARL FAZ” CHAPTER NINE (The Quest Is Revealed By The Naive)

26 03 2014

CHAPTER NINE

Obdurate knew enough to make his approach in public, with plenty of witnesses, and now he was so glad he had thought of that. That willowy youth had snapped those two scouts like twigs. Surely the Earl must be even more dangerous.

The Earl stood a full head shorter than Obdurate, which made him smaller than even the average Therihe man. He was stout in the middle, but his limbs were slender and gave the impression of strength. His skin was ruddy and creased, as if perpetually sunburnt. His cheeks were heavy and implied rich living. His black hair swept back in a widow’s peak, such as the book had described. However, around the temples, there was the slightest frost of white. The suit he wore was well-tailored. This followed the story, for the Earl’s self-indulgence was well described.

He pressed on.

“I mean, sir, I have on good authority that you are the Earl of Weiquant.”

The Therihe gave a polite smile. “Who would that be, colonel? My name is Pehzpersist. I am chief translator and principal negotiator for the Grand Foofaloof of the Ijkalla Islands. I am so pleased to speak with you! Who could I speak to about procurements?”

He looked to the man’s eyes. They had a soft, amiable light; Obdurate tried to imagine this small, dissembling man commanding spies and disarming death-traps. Obdurate swallowed his rising apology and stilled his feet from withdrawing.

“Good citizen-aspirant, I beg your pardon. I am not a colonel, but –-“

“Not a colonel! You have such bearing! How well you present!”

“I thank you, but I have been watching you for some time. I have through truly reliable authority that you are the Earl of Weiquant. The one who helped to kill the Abomination of the North.”

“I am born and raised in the Lower Heronica Islands. I have only just come to these shores. This abomination is someone else’s doing. Truly, sir, set aside your concern and tell me who –”

“I do not want to cause trouble for you!”

The youth asked, “Pehzpersist! Who is your friend?”

During the argument, the willowy, beaming youth had slipped behind Obdurate’s right shoulder.

Obdurate could still hear the scout’s shoulder pop.

The soldier turned to keep the youth past arm’s length. Springing back too far within the crowd, he stumbled into a knot of singing citizens.

Obdurate said to them, “I beg your pardon!”

The Earl and the youth stepped to help Obdurate.

He cried, “Oh! Ah! Please! I am not going to cause you trouble!”

“Grand Foofaloof, I was speaking to this good officer regarding our trade goals! Good colonel! I would ask you to provide information regarding procurement. May we speak on the street, where it is easier to hear?”

The young man sensed an excuse to dissemble. Or an excuse to remove him and snap his neck in private.

Would he be so audacious to kill an army officer outside the Amusatorium? The true question should be “Do I doubt that he would?”

“I am not…I…yes. Let us go to the street. I would like to stay in view! To see the Amusatorium! Not that I do not trust you! Good negotiator! You are a negotiator!”

The Earl and the youth –- what was his title? –- begged leave of their light-dazzled companions. The two wended their way through the crowd. Waves of light of white and gold and red washed over the happy, singing faces.

Obdurate’s chest was like cold stone. His hands tingled.

Breathe, he told himself. Breathe.

He followed the youth through the thinning crowd and out the front gate. The youth walked to the side of the road. The Earl was gone.

Obdurate asked, “Where…?”

He spun around. The Earl wasn’t behind him either, to his relief and disappointment.

“Officer,” the youth said, “Please wait here.”

They waited in the shadows. The cacophony of the song “Akel Makel! Hok! Hok! Hok!” ended and the band struck up the slow and melodious “Tides in Ooleeomeo.”

Obdurate took account of the young man. Almost as tall as Obdurate, the young man was slighter in build. He seemed to be a handsome human male barely in his maturity. He dressed in a sturdy, practical business suit and carried the wicker basket from which the weasel had attacked. A long face with delicate cheekbones framed large, dark eyes, and tapered to a delicate chin. He stood perfectly still, his posture proper, his weight poised.

Obdurate asked, “Where has he gone?”

He took a step to turn around.

The youth’s hand snapped in a gesture to settle. The severity of the movement froze Obdurate in mid-stride.

The basket showed no sign of activity.

“Ah!” came a voice. “There you are, colonel!”

From the shadows many strides from the gate, the man strode, wearing the same daffy smile.

The man strode to Obdurate. Above the smile, the eyes watched. “This Earl sounds like a strange fellow.”

“I…I find him remarkable.”

“How is it that you think that my modest personage should be this Earl fellow?”

“A numeromancy was performed on your story. It led to your residence.”

“’Story?’”

“The tale ‘The Best Man of Trickery.’ Its numbers were factored, which led to an address at a customary. Here you are, a Therihe of the proper age, residing at that customary.”

“Ha! Remarkable! No wonder you are confused!”

“Then I saw what sprang from your basket and attacked that scout.”

The two strangers made puzzled expressions and looked to each other. “The Brumpf?”

“There is a creature called a weasel. Warren. Its description suits the contents of your basket.”

A tiny shadow slipped across the curb to the young man. The man crouched down with the basket opened and accepted the creature. As he stood, a sleek head poked from the basket lid. Its black eyes glittered.

Obdurate suppressed a shout. “That is Warren! Your faithful magic familiar! Bonded to your mind and senses! Loyal without question!”

Warren exchanged nonplussed looks with his liege.

“Aren’t you Warren? Greetings, my name is…”

The creature sniffed the air and looked about absently. The man gave a bemused look to the officer.

“The Brumpf is but a mere pet, a symbol of office for the Foofaloof. But what of this Earl? What would you want with this Earl? A man who kills abominations would be too busy to bother.”

The bemusement that sapped Obdurate’s vigor.

I don’t have the patience for this, not after so many months without any hope.

He suddenly felt very tired.

“Just to ask a favor.”

“What? Money? You wish to extort?”

Obdurate realized that he had been naïve. He had envisioned the Earl accepting Obdurate’s intentions with ease; he realized Fazgood survived through suspicion. The officer tried another tack.

“I have a lock to pick. A magic lock. That is all. One lock.”

The man’s smile slipped, then returned quickly. He looked toward the crowd, then leaned forward. “Is the lock to money? Because if that is so, then I imagine this Earl, if-I-was-to-represent-the-Earl, would not mind picking the lock if there is value to be had.”

This time, the youth and the animal looked to each other. The youth’s mouth drew tight with annoyance.

“So you do…represent the Earl?” asked Obdurate.

“I could make inquiries on your behalf. Are you to draw up some sort of contract with this Earl?”

Obdurate noticed that the daffiness had faded, leaving the watchfulness.

The man added, his voice graver, “We are discussing secrets on a dark street. You came here with a plan. Play it out, citizen. You represent someone.”

“I represent myself only.”

“If I am to represent the Earl, he will want to know the nature of the service, of course. What does the lock protect?”

“The lock is to my true love’s chastity bond.”

“Be truthful. What is the lock defending?”

Beyond the man’s shoulder, the youth seemed pleasantly surprised.

Obdurate plunged ahead. “I tell the truth. It defends the marital devotions of my true love.”

“Who you are not married to.”

“Yes.”

“Does your love know of your love?”

“Yes. She and I have been together for seven months.”

The stranger nodded knowingly. “Ah. One of those chaste things.”

“We have been…she has blessed me with her attentions.”

The youth called, “It is possible to engage in intimacies with the use of –-“

The man blushed. “I thank you, Foofaloof!”

Turning back, the man asked, “Now the most important question: who is her husband, who would have his wife wear this sign of devotion?”

Obdurate swallowed. “I…cannot divulge that! I mean to have you meet with her in privacy!”

“To meet with the Earl, you mean to say.”

“Yes.”

“Speaking as the Earl’s future agent, I can say that those arrangements are not satisfactory.”

Obdurate whispered, and the young man walked closer to hear.

“Privacy must be kept,” said the officer. “On that I insist.”

The man’s brows pinched together. “Then, colonel, I bid you good evening.”

He turned to walk back to the Amusatorium.

The young man whispered in Adanikarese. “Please listen to the officer.”

Adanikarese! And I understood plainly! Our studies are a benefit! I must tell Respiration!

The man glared anew at the youth. “Let he find another up a tree.”

Behind them in the park, bright rose light shone the sky and limned the trees.

Obdurate said, “Wait a moment.”

“What?” the man tensed.

The officer turned to the west. He sang the flowing, wordless hymn of the Royal Anthem. The same notes thundered from over the wall from every throat in the Amusatorium.

Some things must be done regardless. That is honor.

As he sang, he couldn’t see either the man or the youth. Considering what he had told them, Obdurate estimated that there a thirty-three percent chance that they would be gone when he turned back, another thirty-three percent that Obdurate wouldn’t be alive long enough to turn back around, and the third last that they would continue this charade.

What of the other one percent?

When the last notes faded and the crowd gave a hearty cheer, Obdurate turned back.

The man, youth and even the animal regarded him, dumbfounded.

The man walked over and offered his hands. Obdurate took them in his.

“Obdurate Childteacher: Civil Adjutant Captain with the Royal Army of Hospitality.”

The man looked into Obdurate’s eyes and they clenched hands firmly.

“Fazgood, Earl of Weiquant: nobleman become rampant.”

Astonishment and relief swelled in a cold wash and made Obdurate stagger. “It is you! It is you! I am so honored to meet you.”

“This fellow who speaks out of turn should be called ‘Foofaloof’ for now.”

Foofaloof groaned, “Should I?”

“Until my annoyance ebbs, you will.”

Obdurate walked to him and clenched the youth’s free hand in greeting. “The way you handled the scouts was remarkable.”

“Oh! How sweet of you to say,” Foofaloof said.

Puzzling over that reaction, the officer bent his head to the animal.

“You must be Warren! I am Obdurate Child –“

The creature looked at Obdurate. [I heard your name, interloper!]

Obdurate yelped and touched his head with trembling fingers.

[And do not speak to me as if I am an idiot! I am a familiar, not a soldier!]

A giggle escaped Obdurate’s mouth. “This is wonderful!”

At the gate, citizens trickled through, snatches of songs drifting from the revelers.

The Earl said, “You sing well.”

“I thank you.”

The Earl turned with him and smiled. “So, my fresh-baked friend, who is the person in question? The sooner I know, the sooner I can call this mission to order.”

The officer felt giddy. “She is the wife of General Greatsergeant.”

The smile broadened. “You jest!”

A cold shock struck the adjutant. Had he just exposed his love to extortion?

Warren caught Obdurate’s attention. [Is he the grandchild or the great-grandchild of the Smiter of Lanthornmount?]

“He…he is the grandson. And General of the Royal Army of Hospitality.”

[Ah. I thank you for clarifying that. You are terribly doomed.]

The ice in Obdurate’s gut deepened.

The Earl said, “Do not mind my advisor. It is his duty to be mean with odds. It is mine to assess risk versus gain, if you catch my meaning, and I think you should.”

“I…I don’t know what it is I can offer.”

“That is why I feel a kinship to your dilemma. While I am here in Harmonium on…whatever mysterious business I am on, I have my own difficulty to be resolved.”

“Anything. Whatever it is you need, I will bend all of Earth and the moons and –“

“Yes, yes. My palate has yearned for well-cooked cuisine.”

“You…you wish a meal?”

“I would like moosecrab.”

“But that is fallow this year.”

The Earl clenched his teeth. “I know it is fallow. Do you know of one who can cook it?”

Still surprised, Obdurate chuckled. “I used to cook for my uncles when I was growing up. I cooked marshnippers for them, and those are like crabs. If I have a recipe, I believe I can cook moose-crab.”

“’Believe’ you can?”

“I can. But I need a recipe.”

“That should be simple.”

Obdurate’s breathing eased. “Yes! I know just the place.”

“No military cooking, please.”

“No! No! I cam get cookbooks from the pantry of the General!”

The Earl smiled at that. Then his expression grew stern.

“So…how do you make your marshnippers?”

Obdurate stammered. “I have a few recipes, actually.”

“Ah. Tell me one.”

“Do you prefer shelled or unshelled?”

“Shelled,” said the Earl.

“There is the simple way of dropping them in boiling water.”

“Any fool knows that one.”

“But if you prepare the water with –“

“—- with vinegar,” Fazgood waved impatiently. “I know that one too.”

“Yes! But use malt vinegar. And also add a measure of thyme and po-flakes.”

“Po-flakes? Why po-flakes? Answer truthfully, boy!”

“They suck the sharpness from the vinegar so it doesn’t seep into the flesh…and it keeps the malt flavor rich.”

Fazgood took measure of that.

“What sauce would you? Be quick!”

“Served in a separate saucer! A butter sauce with ground dohl, sun-dried pepper and tarragon!”

The Earl gave a disapproving growl. “That sauce is subtle, boy.”

“Subtle is better. You can taste all the flavors that way. And whoever is dining can add spice to suit taste.”

Still wary, the Earl gave a nod.

“But I will still need the crabs!” said Obdurate.

“I will worry about that.”

The crowd filled the street. The three of them stepped back onto the lawn to allow it to pass on the sidewalk. Behind them, the busynight had started. The sky within the wall of the Secure glowed green.

“But you are here…you have smuggled yourself in…for an illegal meal. That is why you are here.”

The Earl shook his head. “It was do this or go mad with wanting it.”

The weasel looked to his master with a steady gaze and a sigh.

Such devotion! considered the soldier. To follow a madman willingly. No wonder Warren is so surly.

However, Calzjha smiled. “But such a tale to be told.”

The Earl sagged so slightly from annoyance.

Thought Obdurate, Naiveté! This Foofaloof is like a glory-struck recruit! Why would the Earl countenance such aid?

Fazgood assumed his daffy smile. “We will have to meet you tomorrow for your introductions, good colonel!”

Obdurate was aware of how wet his armpits felt. “Thank you, good agent, but I am –-“

“Not a colonel. Yes. I remember now.”

“Good agent, good Foofaloof, good…Brumpf, we can meet tomorrow for noon contemplations at Greatsergeant Keep. There I will introduce you to…those knowledgeable. Good evening to you!”

Fazgood nodded. “Good evening.”

The young man waved. “Good-bye.”

[Woeful wretch.]

*         *         *

The Foofaloof and Pehzpersist rejoined their cheerful comrades at the Amusatorium gates. The crowd laughed and clucked and hummed in a flow back down the street.

In Adanikarese, the Earl said, “Two days! I not in this city two days, and already I interfered with!”

“It must be that tale,” Calzjha replied. “Would it create some affinity spell?”

[He said he used it to do a…numeralurgy? He said that is how he found you! How could a mere clerk do that?]

“Poxied tale! Who wrote that tale? I find him, oh-most-very-yes, I find him –“

“Wait! Would Hrikinik betray you?”

“H’rikinik is god-poxied, many-mouthed villain, but when he swore by his name to help me, he was stuck. He betrays me, he starts crumbling into dust. Sphincter-sucking-sewer-flea!”

Calzjha started. “What now?”

“Did you see how that soldier stopped everything to sing the anthem? Take his eyes off us to stand and sing! We could have killed him ten times.”

“He is an honorable soldier.”

“He has a big case of honor, which is also big case of stupid. Either way, he works alone.”

[No one could be that resourceful and that guileless. He must have had help! I suspect he will betray you!]

“I think he is romantic,” said Calzjha using the Rahsic word, for there is no such concept in Adanikar culture.

“Pfffff!” Faz whispered in Rahsic. “Let us assess: he is having an affair with the general’s wife. He seeks me out, using some supposed miracle-method of detection. He does so not to help steal the army payroll and flee the country, for that would make sense and would be an activity I could endorse. No! Our boy wants me to help him circumvent the general’s devotion chain, so that he can get accommodations on the Royal Roads.”

“And you’re helping him for a plate of seafood.”

“Shut up,” the Earl switched to Adanikarese. “What your gut say? We trust him?”

“He seemed sincere.”

The crowd passed the zoo, and Fazgood stole a greedy look at its gates.

“I looked close for a lie,” he finally said. “I saw no lie. The College of Thieves taught me many ways to see lies: He stops blinking; he repeat same words over and over; he repeats what I say or muh-muh-mess up what he say to get time to make up lie; lots more. He did not do any of that.”

[Warren, what do you think?]

[Even if he is an honest fool, which I doubt, he will share what he knows with someone indiscreet. The only question is ‘when?’]

“Yes, all people leak. So he is an idiot who brings trouble.”

“We not go back to the customary tonight,” Fazgood pondered. “Ah! Better! We watch customary to see who watches us!”

Calzjha smiled to himself. “Do what you like.”

Both Warren and Fazgood puzzled over that smile.

The other citizen-candidates started singing. “Akel Makel! Hok! Hok! Hok!”

“I get moose-crab, we get out of Harmonium.”

“But I’ve wanted to know: What will we do after we leave the city? You have quit Hrikinik. You are exiled from here. The Three Cities will have none of you. You’ve said you are out of favor in the Empire.”

The Earl looked down the greenish street. “I do not know.”

“Foofaloof!” Khouro bounced and honked. “Did you hear this song? It is so fun!”

Calzjha drew close to the Fabri. “How does one sing it? Oh!”

He started at his rudeness and looked back to Fazgood.

“Pehzpersist, you may run your errands.”

“Thank you, Foofaloof!”

The Earl waved and watched the two become lost in the crowd.

 





Christopher Eccleston reading John Cooper Clarke

23 03 2014

Happened across this and thought it funny, sweet, and disturbing.





“MAD EARL FAZ” Chapter Eight (The Hunt Begins And The Quarry Discovered)

20 03 2014

            High clouds dusted the sky over the Square of the Superb. Sparrows flicked from tree to tree above the heads of three singers sharing a ballad. Along the sidewalk, Mehzadapt and two of his deputies strode through the crowd to the headquarters of the Scout Brigades. Varalam slipped from the entrance and lumbered to the Inspector.

            The Adactoid reported to Mehzadapt, “The Magnate still hasn’t woke up.”

            The Inspector bit back a curse. It was easier to ingratiate than to battle, but the Magnate’s stroke now forced Mehzadapt to do both.

            He told the deputy, “Stay close and keep alert. Get something to eat if you need.”

            The singers sustained a note, and the rumble from the deputy’s stomach drowned it. The Inspector gave an indulgent smile.

           That deputy was Cornpudding, the thickly-built, black-haired Therihe. Sweat ran down his cheeks from the walk. He gave sheepish shrugs to the Inspector and the other deputy.

            Mehzadapt clapped the large man on the shoulder. “Don’t distress, Cornpudding. Because of your mission last night, I may gloat a little.”

            They entered the headquarters. The walls of the entrance hall narrowed, and either side displayed a fresco of the founding of the Scout Brigades. The narrowness forced the scouts in attendance to loom and impinge upon all who entered.

            Just within the anteroom door, a shiny-groomed Fabri pimp pressed hard back against the Scout antecedents sneaking bread to the caged slaves of the Prevaricate. As the Inspector entered the main hall, two houseburglars heavy with grief pressed back to let him pass; only the blue-green aura of The First Magnate showed behind them. Around the battered shouldercase of the second clerk, the rabble of unchained races trailed away. At the end, grieving swindlers blocked faded Scout Brigades of old bestowing foraged food and clothing to grateful freedbeings.

            Up the stairs, a servant opened a door to the contemplation room.

In this small, windowless chamber sat two beings beside each other at a small tea table, a plug hat resting on the table before each. A brown-feathered Exult in a business suit whose plain perch of wood that was so worn and antique that it glowed lustrous black. Beside him sat enfolded an Adactoid, its head and body round like two boulders of deep sapphire clothed in business garb. Both wore ascots of five colors.

Scout Inspector Midoktik, the Adactoid, spoke angrily to Scout Inspector Akekek-Hekek. It was rare for all three Inspectors to be in the same room at once. Both looked up.

            Mehzadapt smiled. “Good afternoon, Midoktik. Greetings, Akekek.”

            The Adactoid turned its head with disgust.

            Giggled the Exult, “We greet, Mehzadapt.”

            Mehzadapt sat at the table and placed his hat just so. “I came as quickly as I could. How fares the Magnate?”

            Midoktik’s voice rumbled through to one’s bones. “The Magnate sleeps in a terrible slumber hemorrhagic. The physicians fight to staunch his leaking into the dusk. I have been attending.”

            “I will visit with the Magnate tonight.”

            “He is adrift in the sea of thoughts.”

            “I shall consult with the physician as to the best time to visit.”

            Mikdoktik said sharply, “It would not be tonight.”

            “As I said, I shall consult with the physician.”

            Without authority to countermand, Mikdoktik fell silent, lips clenched.

            That inspector finally spoke. “Last night, one of your deputies spied on the Magnate’s house.”

            Mehzadapt laid a finger to his chin and made to think. “That is odd. Did he show you respect?”

            “A fouled stream was he. His respect is a rancid trickle.”

            “That could be any one of my deputies, as you have said many times. Such a poor description does not help me to identify which deputy.”

            A round blue fist tightened. “When next I see one of yours near that house, you may plug the leaks in that deputy.”  

            The Exult watched the exchange from his perch. His giggles refined to light, dog-like sniffs.

            The servant placed a tray of tea on the table and slipped away.

            Midoktik gripped the edge of the table with hands resembling pitted blue marble.

            The Human shook his head. “Do you imagine that I poisoned the Magnate? I had nothing to do with the Magnate’s turn of health.”

            Akekek spoke up. “No one believes you did. The physicians declare that it was his time. His family is rife with such illness.”

            Mikdoktik gave a begrudging nod.

            A ruffle of brown feathers and renewed giggling: “But the lotcasters say there is no document anywhere in which the Magnate declares his worthy successor.”

            The Adactoid pointed at Mehzadapt. “That rogue gambler in the Foreign Due has leaked into the dusk. No one saw her leave her home last night. Yet she has disappeared from behind locked doors. Script and coin lay as if forgotten.”

            Akekek whispered, “Wonders, wonders, wonders always!”

            The blue fingers tightened anew. “She claimed her testimony in your competence review would have had you paving the royal roads.”

            Said Mehzadapt, “I surmise she has found a way to leave the city. Still, how disappointing for you.”

            “Yet another problem boils away, Mehzadapt. Was your punishment for her suitably greasy?”

            “My fellows had nothing to do with her relocation. Mikdoktik, do you have any suggestions as to how the gambler may be found? In theory, there may be a value in your advice.”

            The Adactoid sneered. “Goon-master!”

            Akekek’s giggles froze at the insult, eyes eager, hackles raising.

Mehzadapt looked around to the deputies standing behind him. But he flipped a wrist.

            He said, “Goons they were. They are rough and uncivilized. Goons require a firm will to lead them. I chose these roughest and made these goons into proper scouts, then made them efficient deputies.”

            “While your guile blinds all to their failings!”

            The exclamation made the cups rattle.

The Human leaned closer to the glaring Adactoid. “Do you have such a will? To transform the rejected into the admired? Perhaps…”

He turned in his seat to the large deputy. “…my Deputy Cornpudding has a comment.”

            The heavy man stood with his plug hat in his hand. Under dirty black bangs, his gaze remained cast to the floor.

The Adactoid snorted. “Could he not bathe? He is a sulfur spring.”

Mehzadapt clicked his tongue to express disappointment.

            “Sadly, it is a result of an affliction he contracted in the tropics. You would have him relegated to a lower rank because you find his smell distasteful. Now that, Inspector, would have been a criminal waste.”

He turned again to the discomfited man. “I know that Cornpudding has more inside than most deputies have outside.”

            Cornpudding glanced up and tucked his head further.

            “And what would that be?”

            “Faith, good Mitdoktik! Faith brought this poor man from a low affliction to his present respected state. The same faith in our royal provenance brought us from slavery to the Prevaricate unto liberation. That same faith will bring us through this terrible crisis of the Magnate’s health, whatever the result.”

            Mehzadapt clapped Midoktik on the shoulder. Both the Adactoid and the Exult started.

            “Have faith! It may be that the gambler is closer than you think.”

            The Exult sipped his tea and gave a long sniff of disappointment.

            Mehzadapt rubbed his hands. “I will back the decision of the captains, because I have faith in them. And if the captains stalemate in their vote, I have faith that royal guidance will provide for our future.”    

            The Adactoid eyed him suspiciously. “The populace smells the reek of death! The people say that the Scout Brigades are a corpse-revenant which steals to make a finer shroud. Controversy and corruption may cause our funeral pyre.”

            All fell silent at that prospect.

Akekek’s feathers smoothed. “Whatever the result, unity and tradition must hold the wall.”

            Inspector Mehzadapt took his leave. He suppressed his laughter until outside, where he gave a dusty, wheezing whinny. Being unaccustomed to the sound, the deputies stepped forward to help their boss.

            He shook them off and took a breath. “Ah! That cleansed my spirit.”

            The deputies said nothing. They walked outside and rejoined the retinue.

            A small pale Therihe with an unsettling smile held court over two other deputies. “No, see, the captains will vote for whoever’s got the upper hand out of the three, see –“

            “Tlezjoy!” said the Inspector. “If you can’t keep your own council, at least keep it where no one can hear.”

            “Just explaining how the river flows, Inspector.”

            “What do I instruct?”

            “’Be discreet.’  My apologies, Inspector.”

            “We walk to the singers. Come.”

            The four men trotted after the Inspector. Some five paces from the tonesmiths, Mehzadapt turned and gathered the scouts around him.

            “See you this? I face away from the crowd to counsel.”

            Tlezjoy nodded. “Yes, Inspector.”

            “And so be discreet in replying regarding details. I seek someone. Do you hear me over this din?”

            All nodded and leaned closer.

            “He is an adult Therihe man about forty years old. He has black hair, but he may have dyed it. With a little help, I discerned that as of yesterday he resided in the upper half of Paradesend.” 

            Tlezjoy said, “There are many like him living in that neighborhood, Inspector.” 

            “This one will have arrived only yesterday. Also: he has an accomplice. All we know of the accomplice is that it is a being who can articulate laws, and can resemble a human female. My new friend seems to have acquired magic devices to obscure his nature, but he is not a magician.”   

            “Swimming under the waves with this one, Inspector?”

            “Such is this circumstance, deputy. The Linden Arch Brigade is not to know about our interests in their neighborhood. Make your inquiries discreet.”

            Tlezjoy scratched an armpit. “Any Linden scouts who see us will want to know what’s going on. They’ll make trouble for us.”

            The Inspector stared at the offensive scratching hand until it dropped from ministration.

            Merhiazadpt said, “Then lie. In any case, gain enough confidence to have them betray their names. They trouble you, I trouble them.”

            “Are there any aliases this one may travel under, Inspector?”

            “There is one that I am aware of. He used to be known as Fazgood.”

            The deputy looked over a shoulder. “There are a lot of Faz families all over the region. The name ‘Fazgood’ is not uncommon, Inspector.”

            Another chimed in: “Like that fellow in that story being posted. ‘The Best Man Something Something?’”

            Tlezjoy brightened. “The one about the Mad Earl? The fellow who helped kill the Abomination of the North!”

            “Have you read that chapter yet?”

            “No, they’re still traveling to Birqmuir.”

            “That Blonbirq starts out friendly, but he gets all demanding!”

            Mehzadapt glared at them. All fell silent.

            “This fellow must be found. Discern his motives. Follow him. This needs to be sorted out, especially during such a troubled time.”

            Cornpudding coughed. His mouth worked with a wet clicking. The deputy brought his hand to his lips.

            The Inspector prompted. “Handkerchief.”

            Cornpudding snatched a handkerchief from inside his blazer and spat into it. He glanced inside and walked to a gutter.

            “Tlezjoy, assign the tasks. Find the Fazgood fellow and keep a constant watch on his movements. Above all things, be discreet.”

            Tlezjoy took the first two deputies toward an errand post. The Inspector gestured to Cornpudding, then turned and sped away into the crowd.

            Deputy Cornpudding shook the cloth over the drain. A round blazer button of brass clinked on the stone and vanished into the dark hole. He turned and puffed after the Inspector.

 

*                    *                    *

 

            The customarian clapped his hands. “Our class ends. What will we do now? We will adjourn for private time and then prepare for a leisure visit.”

            All rose and rubbed their aching necks and temples. As all filed out to the hall, Kitpoktik approached Calzjha and Fazgood.

            “We were disturbed when you were late for class, Foofaloof.”

            Fazgood startled from his snoring to protest, then saw Kitpoktik’s attention was fixed upon the bright pupil Foofaloof.

            Calzjha said, “We had gotten lost on a walk, customarian. It was my mistake. I am sorry for causing you worry.”

            “You had been so attentive during the morning.”

“I enjoy learning, customarian. You are a good educator. Is that the correct word?”

            “It is the proper word. I thank you, but I owe all to everyone’s enthusiasm.”

            Kikpotik fumed at Fazgood, who had been sleeping sporadically all morning. “You are fortunate to be in the employ of such an energetic person.”

            “Oh yes. Every morning, I feel my joy doubling.”

            The tone of Fazgood’s voice gave the customarian pause, but Calzjha spoke:

“You said we will be going to the city tonight.”

            “Ah! Yes! We will be going to the Amuseatorium. It is in the Golden Utility neighborhood, near the reservoirs. Why are we going there? There you will learn some ways we in Harmonium relax and enjoy each other’s company.”

            Calzjha beamed. “Wonderful! I love to meet new people.”

            “What new people shall you meet? Artists and musicians and citizens! How do they relax? Dancing! Games of skill!”

            “Would there be a zoo?” asked Fazgood.

            “No, but the Garden of Edification is farther down the hills, closer to the river.”

            “Could we stop at the Garden for about a half-an-hour?”    

            The customarian sighed. “We will visit another day.”

            “Ah. How about food?”

            “We will be eating there. There are many kitchens.”

            “Many cooks, eh? I thank you. I was merely curious.”

            The Fabri sidled up to the customarian and Calzjha. His folds sagged into a downcast expression.

            Calzjha said, “Khuoro! I want to tell you: I am impressed with your Rahsic.”

            That mossy aspiring citizen drooped less, if slightly. He squeezed around his bagpipe.

            He asked, “You are…liking my Rahsic? I feel such a fool.”

            “I would be honored if we could practice together  –“

            In Fazgood’s mind came Warren’s thoughts, [My liege! They have games! You haven’t played dodgley in ages!]

            The Earl looked to the closed basket. [Yes! My arms are feeling restless! And we can see about applying one cook to one crab and be done with all this.]

            [I recommend bribery.]

            Calzjha nudged Fazgood. “Pehzpersist!”

The Fabri and the customarian looked at the Earl.

“You dream, Pehzpersist,” Calzjha said, “Let us go to our room.”

            “Ah! My apologies, Foofaloof.”

            The customarian gave Fazgood an impatient shake of the head as they passed to the stairs. They passed the open entrance. Outside the front porch, the Sixteenth Hour Summer Rain blew a mist onto the congregated residents.

            They called, “Come on outside, Foofaloof!”  “The rain is grand!”  “Join us!”

            Calzjha turned to Fazgood, his face red that they did not also ask for Pehzpersist.

He asked in Adanikarese, “Would you mind? They call for me.”

            “Go with them.”

            “Are you certain?”

            “Go with them.”

            He gave Fazgood the basket. “I will be upstairs soon.”

            Fazgood had a last look at the chatting crowd, then turned and trod upstairs.

            He droned in mocking of Kitpoktik. “What would I do? I would nap. What kind of nap would I have? An epic nap of which storytellers may speak of for centuries.”

            [I would stroll on the upstairs porch, if that is permitted.]

            [You have done too much basket-sitting. Go stroll.]

            Fazgood opened the door, opened it and stepped back subtly. Warren popped his head out of the lid.

            [I smell nothing odd, my liege. No one has interfered while we were away.]

            The Earl entered the room and set the basket down. Warren clambered out as Fazgood removed his jacket and collapsed into his chair. The cane rattled to the floor, and he was asleep instantly to the sound of the rain.

            When Calzjha slid open the door an hour later, the Earl awoke refreshed. They showered. Calzjha changed his shirt, and Fazgood his shirt and suit. They shared the grooming kit; the young man brushed and combed his hair, the older one spending effort to bring the extra foliage of his age under control by trimming his nose hairs and plucking ear hair.

            The Earl rubbed an ear. “I miss the street barbers in Adanikar. My ears could use a good digging.”                       

            “Yes. My ears, also.”

            They contemplated their reflections in the grooming kit mirrors, picking and plucking themselves until they felt prepared for the evening.

            Fazgood said in Adanikarese, “I will find the cook first. That is best.”

            “Yes.”

            “I will bribe. If that no good, I make threats.” 

            “Perhaps if you asked nicely.”

            The Earl snorted.

            He carefully swept up the clipped and plucked hairs, nail-clippings, ear wax and the like into the kit’s tiny caution brazier and set a fragrant candle to burn them.

            Warren resumed the role of Brumpf and squirmed into the basket. Fazgood adjusted his medallion comfortably under his shirt. They joined the fellow citizen-aspirants and customarians in the common room and set off

            The pedestrian traffic seemed to be keeping pace with them. The Earl noticed the same tall Rahsic in a bright maroon army uniform twice, which was odd in that military types in general like to travel in pairs or groups. No plug hats to be seen in the mass of bobbing heads, which eased Fazgood’s mind not at all. Calzjha chatted with Khuoro and a married couple of Rahsics from the Principality.

            It was a brisk half-hour walk to Golden Utilities. They followed the lane as it merged with Rewards of Betterment Boulevard. They walked past a wall of patterned brickwork and saw stream of children in school tunics enter under an awning which read “Garden of Edification”.

Fazgood swallowed a sudden mouthful of saliva. His toes seemed to steer themselves toward the gate, until Calzjha gave a sharp glance. Both the Earl and his stomach grumbled.

            Warren slipped his head out of the basket and looked up. [Ah! What a spirited place!]

            Their path led to a grand palace that glowed white in the setting sun. Seven stories tall, it was the tallest building they had seen other that the bowl of the Royal Resonant Citadel.

            The Adactoid said, “This is the Crystal Amusatorium’s first anniversary. Its bricks of spun glass are imprinted with magic symbols.”

            Kitpoktik actually smiled. But then, imula thrilled when contemplating grand masterworks.

            “The evening. What will happen? A show of lights and sounds that brighten the whole garden for acres. There is no place in the civilized world which has the resources or populace to create such a marvel.”

            Calzjha blanched at such ignorant boasting.

            “All for the delight of the common citizen!”

            The Earl smirked. [Squire, places of common delight usually have blood flying about! I’ve heard no mention.]   

            [Indeed! The Birqmuirish would demand spun-glass fighting pits.]

            They followed the crowd into a courtyard before an arched, roseate entrance.

At one side of the arch, a Exult stooped with age stood wearing a pristine brown smock. “There is racing, quizmastery, clambers, fetchnets, tests of strength, tests of skill, tests of will –“

            The Earl approached the elderly Exult and harrumphed. “Excuse my interruption, but do you have dodgely?”

            “A whole row of dodgely! Down the center aisle to the end, then turn right, that is where the row is to be found.”

            The citizen-aspirants entered.

            The ceiling streached upwards until it lost in a cloud of slowly shifting rainbows. Throughout the haze, clouds of Booloobs drifted, singing favorite ditties. Before the entrants, a concourse of white brick some forty meters wide led off into a thick and boisterous crowd. On either side, playgrounds sized for any age of any race. Stilt-walkers cavorted with guildsmen. Businessmen sang arm-in-arm with a braided-and-beaded Fabri clown. The air tingled with baking fruit and molasses pies, roasting nuts, garlic barley, and neekgrass.

            “Delightful!” gasped Calzjha.

            [Wondrous!] thought Warren.

            “There’s no booze?” asked Fazgood. 

            “Please, let us meet back here at twentieth hour! Why at that time?”

            Fazgood had forgotten the customarian’s presence.

            Kitpoktik continued. “We will observe the gorgeous and ingenious lights! This is followed by singing and dancing! Please meet here at the twentieth hour!”

            The citizen-aspirants found that all agreeable. 

            Calzjha declared, “I am invited to walk with some classmates. I meet you in due course.”

            “Foofaloof, you should take the Brumpf with you.”

[May I please stay and watch you play dodgely?]

            [I need you with him in case something goes awry with any of us. Go with the Foofaloof, and you will still see me play when you return.]

            The weasel grimaced. [Yes, my liege.]

            “Come, Brumpf,” said Calzjha. “Let us go meet people.”

            [May we eat?]

            “We will eat, yes.”

            [Then I deign to be with you.]

            Calzjha huffed and walked to the awaiting throng.

            Fazgood remembered the usher’s directions and walked deep into the Amusatorium. He went to buy a bag of neekgrass, then was told that the palace had its own currency. He located an exchange booth, changed some light script for round ceramic chits, then supped a tall flaxen folder of grass. It was of good quality, thick with sweet-and-salty seeds. He sipped some grape-ade, returned the cup then went to play.

            He maneuvered the crowd, resisting the occasional urge to pick a pocket. He checked his hair in reflecting surfaces, turned to appreciate beauty and artistry, doubled-back twice to examine flowers, and in general did everything necessary to assure himself that he wasn’t about to be stabbed in the spine.

            Twice he noted the lanky Rahsic soldier, who both times startled at Fazgood’s sudden change of direction.

            Is he alone? I see no others. The scouts and the police are too smart to send a tail in a bright soldier’s uniform. Perhaps he is a distraction?

            The Earl found the lane of booths. Here the crowd thinned to reveal a variety of booths. His attention caught the last, for it was the most splendid dodgely booth, the size of their suite’s living room. The best booth he had seen since a child. Better than the traveling ones in Birqmuir and the Principality.

            This booth was set with many layers, shelves and corners. Thick throughout the booth, dozens of fanciful targets awaited; false animals, mirrors, bolts of cloth brocade weighed with bells, strings of chimes, plus many other novel ones. Some targets hung on ropes and poles that spun and rotated at a steady pace, so that their locations alternated at regular intervals. Other targets traveled on tracks and reeds, so that when struck the targets would slide these items were never in the same location twice. All whirred and spun constantly, kept in motion by the hidden pedaling and operation of the dodgely dealer.

            Three booths down, a Rahsic threw with a grim eye. Came from his booth a ping. A whee! The ball sprang back and struck him in the shin and clattered to the floor. In the booth farther down was a Therihe man with two girls, obviously his daughters. He threw, his face red. Ting! P’too! He reddened further when his ball didn’t make it back to him.

            A voice from above rang through the din. “Dodgely! A surprise for your eyes! Lay your skill for a prize!”

            Above the booth, the dealer sat in an alcove. The dealer was an old Therihe man, bright pink and quite wrinkled. His eyes squinted into thin, twitching slits that looked into nothing. To the left of the booth, a large basket of wickerballs tempted. Above that, the pulley which held a cup to make bids.

            “Bid one,” called the Earl, and he dropped a chit into the cup with a clink.

            The pulley zipped upwards. Fazgood took a wickerball from the basket and shook it in his hand.

He bounced the wickerball off a wall. It struck one chime, then rebounded into the Earl’s hands with a clack!

            The dealer held up two chits.

            “Bid the two,” said the Earl.

            He bounced the wickerball off the wall with a slight backspin. It struck a wall, struck a chime farther back, then deflected a twittering bird nest to rebound to the Earl’s hands –- clack!

            “Bid three.”

            The ball smacked a wall, strummed a fabric tree, bounced off a ceramic whimm’s head, spun a mirror, banked a last wall, to be caught by the Earl.

            The dealer said, “You have twenty-four.”

            “You have good hearing. I can barely hear myself in this place.”

            “Yes, sir. I have been at this a while. You have a pretty good hand.”

            “I am merely ‘pretty good?’”

            The man shrugged. “I have heard better.”

            The Earl’s pride took wind. He let fly.

            Within fifteen minutes, he was up to eight targets at a throw. His booth resounded with hoots, whinnies and rings. People walked regularly to see the fuss. A small crowd of children and fuzzy Exult fledglings had formed to gawp at the strange man’s skill. Fazgood advised young males on throwing techniques. He showed the young father how to direct backspin, whereupon the dad won two dolls for his girls. Fazgood informed the children which targets he planned to hit, so that they would be ready to make accompanying noises.

            At the fringe of the crowd, two plughats in blue suits stood beyond by the spinning, clacking dunk-wheels. They eyed his dodgely booth and chatted.

            This is perhaps too much attention, Fazgood thought.

Distracted, he threw and missed another eight. All around groaned with friendly disappointment.

            “Ha! You squat spastic!”

            He turned.

            “You decide to miss now when I wagered!” cried the plughat with a thick chin.

Fazgood shouted, “How about you having a throw, so I can lose more money on you? Come here and best an eight!”

            The scout sneered, but made no reply. The crowd made quiet celebration at such pluck.

            “That’s what I thought,” Fazgood turned back.

“What an accent you have, yokel! Did an orchard-ape teach you throw?”

That was the plow-chinned scout again.

“Citizen,” said Fazgood, noting his crowd, again noting the annoyance his voice, and for a moment noting his prevarious position in this society. “Perhaps some time with orchard-apes would improve your manners. And teach you to throw.”

Some chuckled, some drifted away warily. A path opened between the combative two. Eager to share the fun, Fazgood said to Warren, [It seems I am tormenting some scouts. See their faces?]

            [Ah, yes, I do see them. Indeed. They…are quite large men. This is something I believe I should share with Calzjha.]

            “You! Yokel!”

            Fazgood made to look innocent and baffled.

            The children scattered. The few people near-by found business elsewhere.

            The plughats wore the magenta scarves of The Sunset Creek Brigade.

            Beyond the plughats, a movement of red caught his eye. The solitary Rahsic soldier stood by the wheels, watching.

            Plowchin and his associate strolled over.

            Plowchin asked, “What week is this in the orientation cycle for customaries?”

            The other was a tall Rahsic man with a head full of long sausagelocks. “It’s first day, I think.”

            “Week Three’s coming early.”

            Fazgood asked, “What is Week Three?”

            “That’s when you strangers are scheduled to be robbed.”

            “You schedule robberies in Harmonium? Do the customaries know?”

            “The Board of Customaries makes the arrangements. It’s a part of your training to be a citizen, so that you respect us in the Brigades and know how the Police operate.”

            Plowchin poked Fazgood’s shoulder. “We do it all orderly around here, see?”

            “Except for you,” Longlocks smiled. “We’re robbing you now.”

            “Eh?”

            “This is a robbery.”

            “Ah. Then you will need weapons.”

            “We are civilized in Harmonium. We say, and you hand over.”

            The Earl pondered this. “I could resist.”

            “We would break your arms.”

            “Ah.”

            Plowchin shoved Fazgood again. “Can’t fill out your forms for the tests, then. Out you go and we’d be glad of it.”

            Longlocks breathed sour halitosis in Fazgood’s face. “The city’s too crowded as is.”

            He reached into Fazgood’s coat. Faz reached for his hand. Longlocks slapped the hand away. He plucked out the crystal bottle of relish.

            Longlocks picked at the gleaming stopper. “What is this? Gold?”

            The Earl stepped under the man’s chin and purred. “Return that.”

            The beyond that scout’s shoulder, Calzjha stood primly in his rumpled suit, carrying the wicker basket under his arm.

            “I was told that you had made new friends.”

            “I can handle this!”

            Plowchin looked at Fazgood. “No you can’t, grandfather.”

            Calzjha chuckled. “What is remarkable is that you have gotten into a fight while sober.”

            “I wouldn’t be sober if there was some booze in this place!”

            “You do not mean that. You should come out with the rest of us. You will have fun.”

            Plowchin chuckled and walked over. “You can go anywhere you like. First, though, as the dealer says, ‘bid one, pays two’.”

            Calzjha’s eyes searched for the translation.

            Plowchin plucked at the basket. “What’s in this?”

            Calzjha looked to Fazgood and gave a theatrical and thoroughly Harmoniad shrug. “It is nothing you would care for. I certainly don’t care for it.”

            Plowchin yanked the basket from the young man’s hands and felt inside.

            “What is this, like fur?”

            [Hands off me, you wretch!]

            Warren sprang from the basket and ran up his arm. He bit the plughat on the lip. 

            Plowchin shreiked. Warren clambered past the man’s shoulder and down his back.

Above, the old man swore and slammed the dealer door.

Warren lost his purchase on the man’s hair. He tumbled to the floor and scurried behind the Earl.

            Plowchin grew red. He raised the crystal bottle of relish to strike Warren. Calzjha crooked his own right arm, stepped over and trapped the scout’s arm before it swung the bottle.

            Calzjha spun his left arm over the man’s hand. He secured the man’s grip with his right. hand He pulled the plughat’s arm crooked, then took a step back and twisted. The scout yowled and dropped to his knees.

            Still cursing and holding his lip, Plowchin stepped and swung at Calzjha. Calzjha ducked, spun and slid over the yowling scout’s back without releasing the arm. The scout’s shoulder dislocated with a grinding pop.

Fazgood plucked the bottle from the thug’s limp hand, swung the skullwarmer into his chin with a crack. The scout flung over backwards. Fazgood skipped back out of Calzjha’s way.

            Plowchin stepped around his partner to pursue Calzjha. Calzjha kicked the man in the shin.

            Calzjha crooked his fingers into Hand Position Nine (The Supplicant Claw) and dug them upward into the scout’s testicles, then twisted. The scout went pale and collapsed.

            Longlocks still doubled over with pain. His right shoulder sagged lower than his left. He grimaced with pain and with both hands grabbed Calzjha’s coat. He tried to knee Calzjha in the stomach. Calzjha squirmed within his ill-fitting coat, secured his arm under a second missed kick and swept Longlocks’ legs skyward. The young temple dancer followed the scout down to the floor with his weight. Longlocks struck the floor with their combined weight with a loud grunt.

            Both scouts lay thrashing on the floor. Longlocks rolled with a groan and tried to push himself up with his left hand.

            Calzjha spun before him and twisted the scout’s ascot at the back of his neck. The scout trembled, then passed out.

            From beside Fazgood’s leg, the Brumpf hissed. [Calzjha, you wretch! You handed me to that creature!]

            “I did so knowing you would make light labor of him.”

            [My liege! I protest! Kill Calzjha immediately!]

            Fazgood whispered to the squirming worthy. “It is true, squire! Calzjha’s expression was quite comical.”

            [Comical!]

            “Warren, you made a quick meal of the goon.”

            [I did? Yes, I did, didn’t I!]

            As one, a mass of ushers and police arrived. Given that the two hulking scouts sprawled unconscious, and that the two small humans only suffered Calzjha’s torn jacket, and that a robbery had not been scheduled, it left for all to marvel at the Foofaloof’s splendid dispatch. The police removed the scouts, who would be traded back to their Brigade in exchange for property stolen. The spectators jeered the scouts’ unwillingness to wait three weeks, when the robbery would have been more acceptable.

            Fazgood shook his head, his head in a muddle at such civilized behavior.

            The Foofaloof and Pehzpersist told and retold the tale. Calzjha gave the Brumpf his due in the battle, explaining to all that the Brumpf was not only ceremonial, but also a practical companion. The old dodgely dealer related the bullying that started the excitement, even mentioning Pehzpersist’s marvelous playing. The Foofaloof suggested to Pehzpersist that he stand everyone to drinks and snacks to celebrate. All greatly enjoyed the food, and related to each other similar tales of captured criminals and brash fighting.

            Kitpoktik practically glowed. “Pehzpersist! What a splendid, inspiring person you serve!”

Fazgood muttered as he fetched more garlic barley.

            The time came to leave the Crystal Amusatorium to watch the light show. The crowd of aspirants joined the rest of the citizens on the grounds outside.

            Throughout the crowd, Booloobs and other magicians began to keen. The spun glass architecture glowed and iridized to the music. The musicians all struck up even more happy tunes, which all sang or soon learned to sing.

            “You were good to give your winnings like that.”

            “I should have beaten out of those scouts the name of a corrupt cook.”

            “Do not regret.”

            “I am no closer to finding a cook. I need that cook. The crab without a proper cook would do me no good.”

            “But through building good will this evening, we may find good favor.”

            Fazgood scratched his head. “What if the Foofaloof…no! The Brumpf! What if the Brumpf were to take ill and only a moosecrab may revive him?”

“Why?” Calzjha pouted. “Why does he get to perform an illness? I portray the afflicted remarkably well! Long and lingering declines, sudden onsets –-“

“Your illness would just arouse curiosity. Only a few teachers and smarty-types in this city would know of weasels! Who would contest our say-so?”

            A man’s voice stammered. “I beg your pardon, but I believe I know you.”

            “Eh?”

            Both turned.

In the flickering light of the Amusatorium was the tall Rahsic soldier.

The soldier whispered. “Please! I mean you no ill! But you are Fazgood Weiquant. Please hear me: I am here to ask for your help.”

            Behind a perplexed expression, Fazgood seethed, Zhazh, you god-poxied piss-god!

           





It Happens Once, It’s Horror. Three Times, It’s Comedy.

17 03 2014





“MAD EARL FAZ” Chapter Seven (a family reunion with resulting threats)

12 03 2014

Cliffside-Bastles was the second neighborhood of the city, and was older than the customary’s neighborhood of Paradesend. Despite that age, the only way one could tell the difference was in the girth and height of the trees, which had grown to fill the wide patches of land set aside for their use. However, the sidewalks lay flat around the massive trees; no root pressed the pattern of the bricks to rumple them like an unmade quilt.

Fazgood had been silent since they had read the broadside. Sensing his sullen mood, his associates knew not to ask until the storm had passed.

Calzjha remarked, “How tidy this is! How do they keep the roots from ruining the surfaces?”

Warren looked up from the basket. [Are you certain you want to know? I could inform you, but you’d just lean on the lid again.]

“The Compact keeps all in cooperation,” muttered Fazgood. “Civilization helps nature something something.”

The Earl and Calzjha walked along the brick. Birds chirped in the trees. In the distance, one could hear the echoes of the traffic’s clatter.

Calzjha asked, “Where are we going?”

“I am going,” said the Earl, “to where I am going. Why are you going where I am going?”

“You are my translator. You must accompany me wherever I go.”

The Earl looked around, sighed, then turned back up the sidewalk. “I am not accompanying you anywhere. You are accompanying me.”

“The populace doesn’t know that. We must keep our roles.”

“I set up appointments for tailors to visit. Go back to the customary.”

“I asked the customarians to cancel them. So where are we going?”

“If there is anyone in this city who can leverage a moosecrab, it will be who we are visiting.”

I have to seek out one of Them.

Calzjha looked to the sky. “We must return by the seventeenth hour, otherwise we will miss the lecture on the Exults.”

“Be annoying, and Exults will love you. The best bribe is perfumed dust for their feathers. There is your lecture.”

A small fountain pattered at the head of the street, and next to that a small grocer. They drank their fill, the Earl soaked a handkerchief and mopped the sweat beneath his new hat. Then he purchased some roasted doakbreads from the grocer, and some sticks of sugarcane, all of which had caused them to be thirsty again which made them drink again. Fazgood asked for directions to Scrivener’s Dilligence Street.

Two streets farther down, Scrivener’s Dilligence Street presented as a particularly quiet and shaded lane of cozy homes. The Earl counted off the six houses, found the door of the seventh. With a leftover length of the hard sugarcane, he knocked upon the stout sliding door.

Calzjha whispered, “Who is this?”

Fazgood tilted his hat down to hide his face.

The door slid open. Before them stood a Therihe woman of middle-age. Blond locks framed a square face and square jaw. Bright blue eyes twinkled over a freckled pug nose.

She seemed startled. “Ah! Good afternoon to you! I have no need for vendors today. I am expecting company soon.”

Fazgood found himself bouncing on the balls of his feet in anticipation. “Good afternoon. Is this the house of Yet-More-Muscular Claimant?”

The woman’s hands rose and wrung her apron. “Yes, it is! If my husband asked you to stop by, he is so helpful, but I am so behind in my cleaning, and I do have a visitor coming. Could you come back tomorrow? I will be a little less scattered.”

The Earl replied, “I’m afraid this is an important matter, Goodwife. It has been four years since we set our last appointment. When your husband posted at the Three Kingdoms embassy.”

Fazgood shifted his hat away from his brow.

The woman’s bird-like hands eased slowly to her sides. Her face changed. Her eyes gained a heat and focus.

“Fluxion,” she said. The woman glanced around beyond them at the neighboring homes.

That alone buoyed the Earl’s mood.

“Goodwife, I was so overjoyed to hear of your husband’s posting! The Royal Foreign Affairs Department! You’ve gained your dream of living back in Harmon –-“

She spoke a little louder, “I am sorry, but you have the wrong house.”

She snapped the sliding door shut. But the Earl shoved faster with his sugarcane, and stuck it in the doorjam.

Calzjha looked to Fazgood, stunned: She has his jaw.

Leaning upon the stick, Fazgood declaimed as she tried to press the door shut, “If I could have just a moment of your time, Goodwife, on a matter of importance. We would just be a moment.”

They pushed and struggled.

“Honestly, Goodwife! I cannot! Restate! The importance! Of a brief discussion!”

A hiss came from behind the door. “You would not want the police, would you?”

Calzjha glanced at the nearby doorsteps. No movements stirred at the curtained windows.

“Goodwife! I would sell my wares to whomever you invite! As long as I’ve –- a voice in my throat!

The last part he ended at a shout, which made the door slide open.

The woman’s crinkled smile had returned. “Enter and be quick.”

The Earl took back his cane and ignored its scuffs. “Fazcelestial Claimant, may I introduce my associate? You may call him ‘Grand Foofaloof.’”

“Please enter my home. Now.”

Once the door shut, so once again did the smile flee. Fazgood offered her his cane and hat, but she glared and led them deeper into the house.

The rooms were simply furnished with well-crafted low tables and cabinets, much like the customary’s furnishings, much like all homes in the kingdom. The difference was that the walls were lined with thick tapestries of gardens and landscapes.

A tea set sat deployed on the common room’s main table.

The Earl sat on a cushion and picked up a delicate cup. “How hospitable! I’m parched!”

She took the cup from his hand. “I am expecting a visitor.”

Calzjha said,  “I hope we aren’t inconveniencing you.”

Fazcelestial set the cup back upon the table. “I’ll get you a cup. Would you like a cup also, Squire Grand Assumed Name?”

“No. Thank you, Goodwife.”

“Fazgood, is that weasel still with you?”

Warren peeped out of the basket. [Nothing for me! Nothing at all! Thank you, Goodwife Claimant!]  The basket lid closed with a bang.

“How can you get used to that talking in your head?” She knocked a hand against her temple, then stomped into the kitchen.

Calzjha whispered, “You told me your sister lived in the Three Cities.”

“She arranged for her husband’s promotion this Spring.”

“’Arranged?’”

The woman stomped back into the room. She slammed a small earthenware mug onto the table before him. It was thick, coarsely-glazed and valueless, as one would give a child.

She passed a hand behind her and sat, arranging the seams of her skirt. “I have received your letters. I do not want to know who you are involved with this time. I truly do not.”

“I left the employ with the royalty of Adanikar. I had time and resources to see the world.”

She reached into a blouse pocket and pulled out a small pillbox. “So you violated a Royal edict of exile to return.”

“Yes. I have a hankering for moosecrab.”

Her jaw clenched. “Of course you do.”

She counted out three pills, poured herself tea in one of the delicate cups and swallowed the pills.

Fazgood held out his coarse cup.

She poured. “Drink. Now.”

She turned to Calzjha. “Squire Co-Defendant, do you know my brother is sentenced to public torment and branding if he was to return to this city?”

Calzjha said,  “He…told me as much.”

Fazcelestine set her cup down and breathed into her folded hands. “Then he told you nothing. He joined a rebellion against the Scout Brigades. They tried to start another brigade centered in the Foreign Due. The bunch of them were declared outcasts, then while they were being captured a fire broke out. All of them died save him.”

“But he said he left when twelve years old.”

“He was.”

The Earl nodded. “I was precocious.”

The Earl’s sister gave him a grievous look.

She then said to Calzjha. “Squire Doom-struck, did you know it means branding for anyone who helps him in any way?”

Warren’s head popped from the basket. [Yes! We are sworn to see this through, no matter what his state of mind.]

“That’s what a familiar would say. But you, Doom-struck, you stay no matter how mad he may be.”

The young man stiffened. “We had been through more dire threats. We have infiltrated palaces! I wanted to come. Wherever Fazgood is, chaos seems to follow. In my religion, we seek to learn from disorder.”

She leaned to Calzjha with a look that was almost pity. “Enthus help you, you aren’t lovers, are you?”

Calzjha sagged, trying to conceal disappointment. “No.”

[Thanks to all gods!]

The lid closed with bang.

Oblivious and ruminating, the Earl shook his head. “People believe it is a blessing to be touched by the gods. I tell you it is not. Everybody pesters you for favors. And one cannot get a decent meal like good common folk can.”

The young man looked to the Earl with shock. “You have caused your sister to risk herself. She knows of your presence. She could be branded.”

Fazgood set his cup down and made to look sad. “And that causes me great pain.”

There was a knock at the door.

Fazcelestial drew a deep breath through her nose and closed her eyes. “It is essential that you go into the kitchen.”

Fazgood grinned. “Have you moosecrab there?”

She swelled with rage. “I will help you find your moose-crab. Go to the kitchen. Quietly. Now.”

“My dear Foofaloof, let us retire to the kitchen. My sister has household business to attend.”

There was another, sharper knock.

All rose. The lady of the house shoved the coarse cup into the Earl’s hands and the visitors retired behind the kitchen door.

The three guests peered around the kitchen and found it to be a simple affair, but with utensils and pots to be of the newest design.

Calzjha leaned to the Earl’s ear. “How can you treat your own innocent sister so poorly? To extort your own family!”

Fazgood suppressed a giggle.

Warren eased his head out. [Calzjha, you have no idea! You witnessed a singular event!]

The Earl nodded with glee.

[She is opening the front door!]

Outside, they heard Fazcelestial’s chirping: “Welcome, Ward Leader! Welcome!”

A hearty man’s voice: “Good afternoon, Goodwife. I hope that you and your family are well.”

The echoes of the voices changed as the two citizens of the Kingdom entered the common room and sat for tea. They exchanged pleasant talk of the weather and the beautiful fruits at the market.

The Ward Leader said, “I’ve visited your home before, but I meant to remark on your tapestries. Very…singular decoration. From your husband’s days at the Three Cities?”

“Oh yes. They’re lovely and they do help to keep the cool air in.”

Fazgood whispered, “They help to keep voices in, too.”

[Ha! And incrimination at bay!]

Calzjha gave the amused two a look of puzzlement.

The Ward Leader said, “You had told me of an issue you wished to discuss with me outside of the official meetings. How may I help you?”

There was a profoundly sad sound, like a songbird pining unto death. They realized it was Fazcelestial sighing.

The Leader, concerned: “Great maids, madam! What grieves you so?”

“It is my poor son Fazprime! The placement exams are coming in ten days. He desperately wants to get into administration like his father, but his school marks haven’t been…. He’s always been a good boy. A hardworking boy.”

“I would not presume, Goodwife, but are you about to ask about his placement tests?”

“Ah, Ward Leader! Am I so easy to read?”

“You are without any pretense, Goodwife. It is my job to know people, and to me you are as guileless as a newborn.”

“Ah! I had prepared such an entreaty. But I will leave arguing to my betters. I will just ask: could you help my poor Fazprime to be admitted to civil service?”

“I would consider it, but such intervention is rare and unusual. Questions would be asked, and Fazprime…is not up to the demands of the duty. This is what the test scores say. You may find him a career with…perhaps the Scout Brigades.”

Honest annoyance slipped through her voice. “There is no enemy to pilfer anymore! The Scouts have become layabouts and savages.”

The politican struggled to convince. “There may come a time when the Brigades will come again to the fore. He is well-suited.”

“But it is so well-known that people do change with responsibility and age.”

He consoled. “My son knows Fazprime and says he is the best sort. But the tests are strict for a reason. Your husband can tell you better than I about that.”

“Are you decided then, Ward Leader?”

“I am, Goodwife.”

“I see.”

“I regret disappointing you, but it is the way of my responsibility that I cannot satisfy all.”

Her voice brightened. “Ah. Do not feel sad for me. But let me tell you something amusing. Such an odd thing had happened the other day, I truly must tell you.”

“Perhaps you could tell me another time.”

“Sir, I had taken an evening’s walk and I had become confused. Silly old me! My husband says my sense of direction is like a butterfly’s. I meant to enter back through my home through the backdoor, but discovered that I had walked down the wrong street and behind the wrong house! What a fool I felt!”

“Ah. How awkward for you.”

“Yes! I remember that the house I almost entered was two streets away and three houses farther down and on the opposite side. I have been preoccupied, but still, I should wear a bell or something so I can be found!”

“Goodwife! A bell? Ha! That would be unnecessary! But…which house did you say you had wandered to?”

“Two streets away, three houses farther down, and on the opposite side as mine.”

“That would be…. Why, Goodwife! That would be my house! We would have enjoyed your company!”

“I felt uncomfortable as it was. Surely you understand. There I trembled in the dark and everyone indoors because it was raining. But as I departed, I suppose it was your back door, I had almost stumbled over a canvas sack. It tinkled a bit. I looked inside, and it was a collection of smashed glass.”

There was silence.

In the kitchen, the three looked to each other to see if any had deduced the significance. All shrugged, then eagerly pressed their ears to hear more.

“Good sir, I always find use for discarded items. It is doing our best for our kingdom!”

More silence, then: “So you took the sack…home?”

“I thought I had. I remember opening the sack and seeing all this beautiful green glass that I knew I could find a use for. But it all had such an odd smell to it. And there was so much of it. I resolved to wash the glass later, and so I set the sack aside.”

Fazgood suppressed an amused groan. Warren closed his eyes and shook his head with pity. Calzjha pouted, still puzzled.

The Leader’s voice was measured and careful. “Where did you put that sack?”

“Do you see? There I am again: lost! I set the sack aside, and I can’t remember where I had set it!”

“You…can’t…remember?”

“Silly me! I’ve looked everywhere.”

Silence again. In the kitchen, none dared breathe.

The Goodwife spoke, “Why sir! Are you well? Have some more tea!”

“I…I could help you look.”

“Oh, the bag’s safe somewhere! I know it is! It’s that with worrying about Fazprime’s acceptances, my mind is a waterspout! Hoosh! All flying everywhere.”

“Your worries are causing you to forget?”

“Indeed sir. I do wish you could help me sort my mind! Otherwise I would never remember about the sack, and I’d have to start asking the neighbors.”

The Ward Leader’s voice had a high, tense quality now: “That sack…contained bottles from many, many years of entertaining guests.”

“I wouldn’t know what they contained, sir. Or how recently the labels on the bottles had been printed. Are you certain you will not have more tea?”

Silence.

Calzjha looked at his compatriots, not certain whether to take umbrage at their mirth.

Fazgood leaned to him. “Green bottles are reserved for the hardest liquors.”

Calzjha whispered, “But alcohol is popular in the kingdom.”

“A rumor that he drinks unseemly amounts would cast doubt upon him.”

[That sack could ruin him, you fool!]

The young man was aghast.

The three heard the Ward Leader stutter his need to leave, which the Goodwife accepted graciously. He tersely bid good-day, and she returned it with an abundant cheeriness.

Footsteps. The door slid open. Fazcelestial stood in the doorway, her eyes like those of a rabbit-sated raptor’s.

The Earl allowed an appreciative nod. “That was well played.”

She accepted the compliment coolly.

Calzjha stammered, “Wasn’t what you did illegal?”

Fazcelestial sorted her cuffs. “I have no idea what you are talking about.”

The Earl gave a vexed glance. “I have told you before about asking useless questions.”

[Please do not annoy her.]

The woman escorted them back into the common room. The cups and cushions evidenced the unseen events.

She said, “While I was speaking with the Ward Leader, I had a thought regarding your situation. You want your moosecrab? Try the zoo.”

Fazgood rapped his knuckles against his temples. “Ah! The zoo!”

His sister smiled with satisfaction.

The Earl scratched his head. “I had been considering crabs already dead and cooked. But a zoo crab would still need cooking. Sister?”

Fazcelestial spat air and looked upon him with disdain.

“I apologize, sister. I remember now: your husband does the cooking.”

“He cooks barely to my standards, and certainly not to your tastes, Earl Pet’s-Palate.”

Fazgood tapped his associate’s shoulder. “And she thought of my crab while entertaining a guest! Did I not tell you she was remarkable?”

Calzjha regained his composure. “You did…tell me. Indeed.”

“Normally the Foofaloof is a better liar. Your performance left him speechless.”

“Such a trait is worth learning,” she replied.

“Another thing about families, Foofaloof: never overstay your welcome. Dear sister.”

“Dear brother.”

“I have so many questions: how is your family?”

“You heard of Fazprime’s predicament. He does well otherwise.”

“Yet-More is advancing up the ranks of governance.”

“Yes. However, Squire Inky-Fingers needs to show more initiative, and do less scribbling.”

“The two of you will make a wise Prime Minister one day. Have you heard from brother Fazclever?”

“I send him money. He sends me his artwork otherwise.”

To Calzjha: “Being an artist does not pay much, but our brother’s talent is unique. What of our brother Fazduty?”

“Promoted to Master of Sergeants in the Prince’s Border Guard. He receives your letters. He shreds them in his teeth.”

“It is his own fault that he is honest.”

“You tell him that.”

The Earl dropped his voice to a whisper. “What of sister Fazarboreal?”

“She and mother have fled to points unknown.”

“Then we shall extend pity to ‘points unknown’.”

He leaned closer. “Have you been to see our old house? The Faz lodge in Creedlesbrook?”

“They tore it down and built a grander one. Do you know how many thousands have lived there since we left? Where do you get your sentimentality?”

Fazgood shrugged, not a copy of the Harmoniad Shrug, at a loss for a quip.

He turned to Calzjha. “Foofaloof, please have a look outside?”

Calzjha noted the stillness between the siblings and bade the goodwife a pleasant stay. She shut the door.

“Where did you pick up this poor patsy?”

“I happened upon him in Adanikar.”

“He is in love with you.”

“He’s still young enough to think all of this is exciting.”

“Yet you do not ditch him.”

Fazgood’s smile had gone. He looked out the window at the street.

Her expression of pity returned. “Shadows fall quickest near thieves.”

“I think the street is clear,” he said.

She reached for the door. “If they come asking, I will tell them you were here.”

“I know. I wouldn’t want you to gamble all of this.”

“I’ve said it before many times, I’ll say it again: Stay away, Fazgood. Never come back.”

“I am sorry, sister, but we are stuck with each other.”

“You may…continue sending your letters. My husband gains such enjoyment from them.”

“Extend my regards to your family at some time when it is safe to do so.”

Fazcelestial opened the door and the sunlight streamed in. Her light, dizzy smile returned. “Good day to you, vendor!”

The Earl’s own affable smile returned. “I thank you for your time, Goodwife. I hope the remainder of your day is pleasant.”

He stepped onto the stoop and joined Calzjha. They walked up the street and heard the door close behind them.

Calzjha whispered in Adanikarese, “And that is all? You had not seen her in years.”

“Each family is a nation. Each have its own ways.”

Calzjha walked along, his graceful stride having an unusual weight. “Warren —Brumpf?”

The weasel popped his head from the basket. [Yes?]

Calzjha’s expression froze at the mistake, then resumed his whisper, “In the kitchen, you mentioned ‘a singular event.’  What event?”

[Few have ever gotten leverage on a member of our liege’s family and kept their bones or their fortune intact. Fazcelestial herself blackmailed our liege during his stay at the Three Cities.]

The young man shook his head in dismay.

Fazgood nudged his young friend and asked in Rahsic, “Do you know what you need, good Foofaloof?”

Calzjha noted the Earl’s sudden heartiness and replied. “Moosecrab?”

“Indeed! We are half-way to our goal. And the zoo will keep our crabs safe. Now: to a cook.”





“MAD EARL FAZ” Chapters Four, Five & Six (containing betrayal, fear, and a lurid biography)

5 03 2014

CHAPTER FOUR

          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!

CHAPTER FIVE

            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.”

“’Gaudy’, Inspector?”

“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.”

       “Yes, Inspector.”

          “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.”

“Indeed.”

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.”

“A demon!”

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?”

Another casting.

“’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.”

“Eh?”

“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.

“Citizen Customary…”

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?”

“I…”

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.

CHAPTER SIX

          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.”

Rap-rap-rap!

          The room burned and people screamed. Tears pushed through Fazgood’s eyes. Someone had betrayed them all and Fazgood had to do something.

           Rap-rap-rap.

           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.”

            [What?]

            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.

He pondered:

       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.]

“Still…”

            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.

“Breakfast, please.”

           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! 








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