“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.

 


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