30 04 2014

The Earl and Calzjha stepped from between the houses and onto the street, revealing the moons above the trees. Some windows showed the fluttering of heat pump fans. Other roofs and verandas of houses twinkled with small lanterns, as their residents slept upon them to gain the cool night breeze. The air smelled sweet from the flowering trees.
Fazgood placed Warren on the brickwalk. Now outside the Secure, the three looked up at the Greatsergeant Keep, its curtained windows concealing multiplying scandals. Behind the keep, the green of busynight dimmed into true dark. They turned back to the street. The moon Rezhalla was obscured by clouds, coloring those tumults into the hues of sweet pink moosecrab-flesh.
The Earl exclaimed. “Is there nothing that does not –-!” He caught his shout, and whispered. “We must get that crab.”
Calzjha lifted his foot and flicked wet grit from his cuff. “From what you told me, you could just climb the wall and steal the crab while it is night!”
“The moons are too bright for burglary. Even if it were cloudy, those who work in Golden Utilities sleep on its grounds out in the open air. Imagine that: we splash into that tank, battle my dinner, then retreat while stumbling over freshly-roused civilians.”
Calzjha looked back at the keep. “What was that…thing? How can I ask about this?”
“Warren, please explain to Calzjha.”
The weasel startled, [My liege, do you truly trust Calzjha with such important information?]
[I obey, my Earl.]
He leaned to Calzjha to share the secret. Excitement overwhelmed his disdain.
[Calzjha, it was the Prevaricate! That device in that box was a magicked device of the Prevaricate!]
The Earl nodded. “Good hysterics, squire.”
[We had seen such devices when we were spies for the Three Cities! Those serving the Prevaricate gain their power from masks!]
Calzjha choked. “The –“
“No names.”
[The mask would melt with the agent’s very skin. It bestows hideous powers upon the wearer. The ones we had seen were made of dragon hides, to give power over the dragons of the Three Cities! Another was made of activated ice, and that gave powers over the Hazbirq icecaps!]
“But –“
[The mask we saw was unmistakably made from god-clot! That would give power over the Secure!]
Fazgood said, “So you do see the situation.”
Calzjha looked up and down the empty, moon-dappled street, crestfallen. “Respiration…is a spy?”
The Earl rolled his eyes at such concluding. “No!”
[The general, you tart! The Battle of Lanthornmount!]
Fazgood wagged a finger aloft. “There! Warren sees the beginning of the situation. How did that battle go, squire?”
[Throughout history, it had been believed that the General’s grandfather had led skirmishers outside the Secure and deep behind the siege lines of the Prevaricate’s Governor, and that when confronted by that great villain, the General’s grandfather used guile and fury to make his force seem larger and drive that evil from the field, breaking the siege.]
“Or,” the Earl shrugged. “Perhaps not.”
[These events are believed true by historians all over the civilized world.]
The Earl chuckled. “Truth is seldom a snug fit. Calzjha, all of that warband was either killed or locked forever in babbling despair by magic. Except for one.”
[The Prevaricate and a founding Paragon of the Kingdom! But why would the Prevaricate allow withdraw, allow his slaves to revolt and take thousands of miles all the way to the Alpia Mountains, if he had such advantage?]
The Earl looked to Warren and waited for the squire’s realization. That worthy was crouched a few steps back with a stunned expression worthy of taxidermy.
Prompted Fazgood. “What is the quote, Warren? The ‘Let the Gods’ quote?”
[“And The Prevaricate exhaled his smoke and spake unto the land: ‘Let the Gods build forever; it shall never be as it should. I will make even the finest achievements and even the greatest struggles into the merest poot.’” My liege, I think I’m going to be sick.]
Fazgood whispered. “I think I can say this aloud. He did it, Calzjha, as an object lesson. To take the most perfect society and defeat it through one man’s greed. And the longer the item is held, the greater the disaster and misery when it is revealed. Then he comes back and reconquers and everyone is even more miserable for having had the pleasure of freedom and prosperity and then knowing they screwed it up.”
Calzjha looked around at the houses perfect as they day they were laid scores of years ago, at the streets of uncracked hundred year old bricks, and the trees whose branches and roots never grow to inconvenience, and to the utterly predictable clouds.
“Why not destroy…?”
[Calzjha, a part of the Prevaricate lies within it. It cannot be destroyed. Where could they hide it and truly know it to be safe? Bury it in the ground wrapped in despondene? If that box is damaged, the spirits will know the betrayal. This whole kingdom is built on their cooperation.]
They stood in the dappled shadows on the brickwalk, contemplating how enraged the trees would be, and the clouds, and even Eldest Daughter, and how they would vent that rage on the entire Kingdom. Thanks to the Compact, the Kingdom’s navies always sailed in splendid weather, bogs and fogs parted before its armies, the very gnats kept to pest sanctuaries. Through the mutual respect of the Compact, civilization and nature could repel their common enemy. The spirits of nature were not sophisticated. A betrayal by a Paragon would be considered a betrayal by all civilized people.
“Where is the common house for this neighborhood?” said the Earl. “Again they keep the most basic needs secret. The dark house there, I think.”
Fazgood opened the unlocked door, chose a bottle of caml-zre and left payment on the shelf. None stirred from the bedrooms upstairs, why should they? None stole without permission in Harmonium.
Sharing sips, the Earl looked back to the keep. “The concrete of the bedroom wall did not match the rest of the rooms. Some lesser mason added it after and shortened the room, and added the concealments. Most likely that mason’s heart was bled out!”
They sat at a fountain, on a street whose name they knew not, and waited for Rezhalla to sail to the position of the third hour.
The time was spent in manner they found familiar and comfortable, with Calzjha and Warren arguing theories through their thoughts while the Earl glowered into the dark, sipping and contemplating.
They walked back to the Secure as Fazgood swatted concrete-grit from his pants. Weary, they trudged through the back yards, into the canal, and found the recess that allowed them back to the Keep.
They climbed the ladrail.
In the alcove, only one lantern was still lit, its light made the granite walls sparkle. The box rested under its cloth, the perversion within waiting.
They took off their shoes and opened the door. In the bedroom, Respiration sat on the bed alone.
“He went home already?” asked the Earl.
She looked up, roused from her thoughts. “Yes.”
“Have you any liquor in this room?”
“None in the room. None in the home.”
“I say this with respect, but we have to change that. It is a useful substance.”
“I have been considering that.”
Calzjha asked, “Was your evening satisfying?”
The firmness and poise returned to her, but her gaze went to her hands.
“Yes,” she demurred. “It was.”
“I ask because…sometimes when new love has been forbidden, then is allowed, sometimes the thrill becomes a fear.”
She considered that.
“Does the captain know of that device? Does he truly know what it is?” Fazgood asked.
Respiration’s jaw clenched. “He knows. It is why he is desperate. And foolish.”
“You knew of the betrayal and did nothing.”
“What would I do?”
“You have money. You have an entire city filled with ships and carts. Take a package tour with a trunk full of specie and vanish.”
“And go where, Nimblest Man? What magician would conceal me? What nation would give me sanctuary? And who would gain the secret next?”
The words spilled from her: “The General’s lineage is rife with death and insanity. His grandfather led a charge into certain death. His grandmother and his father were known for their melancholia, and died early. His mother…drowned. They all knew of that. The knowledge drove them mad.”
Her eyes gleamed wet in the dark room.
“But for all this despair, my husband is a charming, winning man. All believed and believe still that he defeated this mysterious curse of the Greatsergeants. I had no family, and was a ward of my father’s liege. I wanted to bring a new life to this dark place. Imagine my horror after we wed. Imagine when he dared me to tell.”
All looked to the floor. The Goodwife’s burden now shared, the weight of generations made the darkness heavy as lead.
She touched a sleeve to her eye. “He revels in it.”
The Earl took a breath and rubbed his chin.
Said he, “Whether you believe in me or not, I will not betray you. It would be incriminating to me, and rude to you.”
She looked to the window. “I must believe in you. It occurs to me this evening, gentlemen. You will be but another man I have invited in my room to improve my life. The first was wealth, with horror. The second is love, with peril.”
The Earl listened and sucked his lip, contemplating her woe.
She said, her voice bitter and heavy. “I could see who I will have save me next.”
With an unusual vehemence, the Earl smoldered. “Feeling sorry for yourself will save no one.”
She took a breath and nodded. “No. No, it will not. I just need some rest. I will see you in the morning, gentlemen.”
Fazgood, Calzjha and Warren slipped out the door and shut it. At his feet, Warren listened at the doorjam.
[She weeps, my liege.] Warren’s own eyes glistened.
Fazgood looked to the door, his gaze hard, then looked to the removal of his shoes. [Yes, I imagine she does.]
He turned to the stairs and they slinked back to their room.

* * *

In the dawn, Obdurate showered, the water pouring across his brow, down his chest and body and along his betraying member.
I have gone through all this trouble, and had such a stroke of fortune, that I should fail it.
She had tried consolation last night, but his heart pounded so that it nauseated him. The fire that had burned in every breath, nerve, and cell of his body was gone. From the moment he had watched the Earl with Respiration, there had been a rising apprehension.
He dressed, presented himself with the rest of the officers for exercise, ate, his thoughts in a deep iron silence.
In the lobby of the headquarters, an errand child cried: “Adjutant Childteacher!”
“What?” he snapped. He cared not.
The fluffy Exult stepped forward tremulously, a letter in tiny, ridged fingers.
“A message, sir.”
The officer snatched the letter. The fledgling fled.
The letter had Lacquerfish’s seal at its top:

All abide:
The schedules for the lotcasters in your services are suspended at the convenience of the Palentine. This is without exception. The lotcasters will be boarding at the Terhane Residences near the Citadel. They are not to be contacted except in case of family emergency. All are to deliver themselves without delay.

His woe stepped back. Obdurate remembered Hakek’s relating of the Navy’s assistance to the Palentine in some discerning matter. The corps’ own discerners and lotcasters were all at the Ijkallas with the General, except for one lotcaster who was near retirement, who cast for accounting errors. His curiosity rousing, Obdurate walked downstairs to her alcove.
The old woman greeted her sudden assignment with some surprise.
She snorted. “Something’s swimming, adjunct. The Palentine’s not gathered all discerners in…. Since that rogue hurricane ten years ago? More? Much before your time! Had to find survivors at sea.”
“There is no hurricane about that I saw.”
“No, there isn’t, is there? The Palentine doesn’t do things idly, and no drill was scheduled. You’ve been looking worn, captain. Have you been feeling well?”
“I just need some tea.”
The lotcaster gathered her casting sticks and rolled them in her casting cloth. She wrote a quick letter to her husband for her belongings to be sent to the residences. Obdurate saw her out of the foyer to a rickshaw.
“I will arrange for your mail to be delivered.”
She touched heart and hummed a salute. “Thank you, Captain.”
Obdurate watched the rickshaw trot away.
Just to get away and do your job. What a heaven that would be.
He trudged back inside and up the stairs to his office. His desk already had a stack of requisitions laying in wait for him. He slumped onto his stool.
I have ruined Respiration’s life. I must find a solution. There must be a solution to this.
Have I not done enough?
The young officer sat, mind empty of all but misery. He did not enjoy misery or value its lessons.
What else can I do but this? he thought.
He sighed and considered.
He easily recalled his total from the numeralurgy of two days ago. Could he determine his and Respiration’s fate this way?
No. His method only gave locations in space and time. He would need figures from the mute future to use his method.
Could I try numeromancy? There are so many equations for that discipline, and they are so closely guarded.
Obdurate knew none of them.
The numeromancer gave him one equation; one that was applicable to Obdurate’s job, one that he felt would cause no risk or disruption: The Formulae for Determining The Most Valued Baggage.
How completely, utterly useless I am. Worse than useless. I have destroyed everything. At best, my love is gone and I am imprisoned. And last night was the final, cruelest joke.
Two days ago, two long days ago, while deducing the numeralurgy of “The Nimblest Man”, Obdurate had imaginings. Obdurate had imagined approaching the Earl at some discrete, but public street, and confronting the Earl with the knowledge of his identity. The Earl would have denied all, of course, but been alarmed. Obdurate had imagined inviting the Earl to a nearby hospitality. In a darkened, removed nook of the public room, the Earl would appraise him over Birqmuir whisky concoctions. Despite himself, the Earl would be openly astonished:
“A humble adjutant? Not even a true numeromancer! Remarkable!”
Then the Earl would whisper, “I am here on a matter of gravest importance! I am contracted to the King on a matter of sincere security!”
After a sip of his concoction, Obdurate would coolly make his bargain.
The astonishment would harden. Here was the world-renowned adventurer trapped and forced to bargain with an upstart!
Then the rage would turn to an appraising nod. “Being royalty, I can recognize a noble spirit! Freeing your beloved from her hated circumstance! Splendid! I need someone clever and noble to aid my defense of the Kingdom, and for your aid that I shall relieve you of this General in a manner that humiliates him, but somehow leaves –“
Another stack of requisitions dropped onto his desk. The clerk hummed a salute and walked out of the office, glancing at the stack that already sat on the desk untouched.
I have to do something to get myself in the mood to work.
He sighed, Perhaps the Formulae could loosen my brain for those forms.
He took the number for Fazgood, remembered from the numeralurgical calculations. He divided it by Adanikar and Harmonium’s factors. He converted the distance between the cities to the proper unit of measure, then factored it by the ocean. He remembered someone had mentioned “two months” as travel time, and Fazgood’s arrival date he knew.
He applied the First Formula. The first determined the port of entry for Fazgood’s…most…valued…baggage.
I am useless.
But the numbers filled his mind with something, so he continued.
The calculations were easy. He had been given the numbers denoting the most used ports of entry in the Kingdom. Obdurate hoped one of those numbers would be the solution.
58 and one-third. The Foreign Due of Harmonium.
The Earl must have entered through some Adanikarese subterfuge. That is something I didn’t know, I suppose….
The Second Formula determined the value of the item to the receiver, who he factored as Fazgood. The same values again as the First Formula, a factor for Fazgood’s social status in the receiving port (an exile, whose number was “four-and-seven-tenths”), another for diplomatic relations between the points of transport, and number of entourage.
All of those factors were low, and the low numbers drove everything down. The solution was one-third.
Now this was interesting. “One” was the value of the mortal receiver; if Fazgood had packed himself in a crate and shipped only himself, the answer would have been “one”.
But “one-third”? Fazgood had shipped a large fraction of himself to the Foreign Due?
During Obdurate’s lunches with Mehezgladness, the adjutant had asked the trafficant about the interpretation of a fractional result. Between the sucking of teeth, Mehezgladness replied. “I heard of the circumstance of a soldier. He had shipped his severed, mummified arm for cremation on the banks of the Quand. That must have caused quite a fuss when that package was mislaid!”
Obdurate looked up at the carved rafters of his office and thought, Perhaps the Earl had shipped himself, and Calzjha was already in the Foreign Due, and received the package.
But if that had been the case, then the first equation wouldn’t had been so tidy.
Obdurate reminded himself, This is a man who stole a fortress. And then he returned it.
What could have been in that package? Perhaps it was Warren! But no, a separate being would still count as “more than one”. Despite their connection, Warren would possibly count as “one-and-a-third”, but not as a part of the Earl.
Fazgood’s body seemed healthy and whole. He wrung his memory for any limp or looseness of limb he may have seen on the Earl. Perhaps an inner quality of the Earl had been displaced.
Is such a thing possible?
The young man looked out his office window and over the rippled roofs across the plaza at the clear blue sky, and realized how very, very far away it stretched. For a moment, he realized those wondrous and bewildering distances, to other lands and peoples. He realized there were living beings and societies whose abilities his studious brain could never stretch to imagine, and his soul only yearn to understand.
What could have been in that package? And did he get it back?
And: He broke himself into pieces…for moosecrab?

* * *

That same morning, Calzjha, Fazgood and Warren left before dawn for the customary, and were seen out of the keep under the curious, baleful stares of the maids. Thus morning meal with Goodwife Greatsergeant was avoided.
The Earl walked quickly to awaken his blood. The foot traffic was refreshed and yawning, rather than the intermittent pedestrians of a few hours ago outside the Secure. The still-moist air kept the stinging smoke of peatfires thick in the street. The haze gave the whole of the streets and squares a gauzy, yellow glow.
“We must help them,” Calzjha said flatly.
“You are young. Part of becoming old is knowing doom when you see it. They are in an endgame.”
“You have been in many endgames and have guiled your way out. I read that somewhere.”
Warren gave not one quip or observation. His nose poked from the basket lid and twitched, as was his habit in desultory contemplations.
As they arrived at the customary, there were many inquiries of the Foofaloof. All were very pleased to ask the young man (and also greet his servant of course) about life in a Paragon household. Kitpoktik had tried to be nonchalant about the Foofaloof’s new celebrity. But the excitement proved too much for the customarian, and the old Adactoid took the beginning of the class to reinforce the previous lessons:
“And how does she live?”
The Foofaloof confirmed. “The customarian teaches truly. She does live as simply as we at the customary.”
“And what does she do?”
“She helps others to contemplate fine ideas. The guests at her contemplations all remark that her presence is delightful. That as a Paragon, she…. What was the phrase you said yesterday, Customarian?”
“What was the phrase? ‘The paragon refines the spirit and purifies the devotion.’”
“I often remark to her on what a splendid class and classmates.”
The warmth of the aspirants’ dedication, the greed in the glances of the customarian, and the Foofaloof’s joy in sharing good fortune; all served to make Fazgood’s eyes roll in disbelief.
After the lessons ended at midday, Fazgood and Calzjha parted company, Warren was dozing in the Brumpfbasket. The day was unusually warm, and the Earl was glad to walk about in his usual determined pace, and the feel of what little breeze cooling the nape of his neck. At the Arterial, he watched an ambulatory wail and rumble past, and regretted again that he had eschewed the widow’s clothes, as she would doubtless have been allowed to ride.
At the Malabar Flats Ferry, he presented the guildman’s card, paid, and was transported across to the Foreign Due.
The ferry had the same declaimer as his last trip, perhaps even the same merchants lining the benches. This time, however, they listened to the recitation with rapt expression.
The man recited from memory:

“Up he crawled and wriggled, clutching Blounbirq’s lethal delivery to his breast,
a mere guild magician’s Preservation Wrapping about his body to protect him from the inferno,
dulling it to a smothering warmth.
But the stench of a thousands years of digestion assailed his nostrils even through the enchantments!
The Nimblest Man had crawled this vilest hell.
Even the slightest tickle felt by the slumbering Abomination,
As an ant in our own sleeping tracts, spelled the brave boy’s doom.”

His doze ruined, the Earl listened to the tale and was amused. A few listeners rubbed their throats and swallowed, faces appalled at the risk the boy took.
Fazgood thought, At least that legend still holds: Everyone prefers heroes in throats.
He stepped from the boat and followed the crowd through the gatehouse and into the Due.
He walked the familiar quays, rediscovered a bend in the street he had forgotten, crossed two thick bridges whose names he had still forgotten, and found the alleyway again.
At the end of the alley, the afternoon sun cast upon a weather-beaten, lacquered storehouse. It appeared as if it had always been there, in this narrow way that held no delight, no charge of excitement or significance.
It has been thirty years.
He stepped no farther, not wanting to risk being trapped in the alleyway if he was discovered.
There would be no cinders, no keepsakes; all would be long gone.
He remembered most of their names: Uzkuk the Grand, the big red-haired Birqmuir man; Iqiar from an island north of the Hermitshells, who always smelled of sweat and beer; others if he wrung his brain. He had realized long ago that he couldn’t remember them, even Uzkuk, who had been their leader, could not even remember their faces clearly much less their natures. But he knew they were good beings who deserved better.
He had imagined there would be at least a sign to warn others.
What would the sign read? A placard as in the zoo:

Know This:
The Death of the Eleven Circles Rebels!

Nineteen incredibly foolish beings burned to death on this site after trying to get the foreign-born equal rights to Scout Brigade membership.
But one apprentice escaped! Have you seen him?

But he had not even a sign to drink to, or piss on.
He did remember the day they died. Under the floor of that burning building, wriggling into a sewer pipe, crawled along and out to the street. The fire had leapt bright red-orange, fluttering and waving like a terrible monster, trapped and contained by the waiting Scouts, and the Public Worksmen who had kept it alight but had exulted the waves and undulations of water out from the river and onto the roofs of the surrounding buildings.
The fire, how had it started? They had been trapped, how? Betrayed? There had been someone. I knew every detail, even back in Adanikar so few months ago, and the anger was so hot and satisfying! Why can’t I remember?
The moosecrab craving swept upon him once more, crushing all thought.
Juicy antlers, sweet flesh melting in his mouth. That relish! It would be more tasty with Hrikinik’s relish!
Then: And I am here to eat seafood.
I am mad.
He gathered himself for the walk back to the pier. Thankfully, a different declaimer spoke of spice and dye prices on the ride back.
A few zreces bought a quick rickshaw to Golden Utilities, and from there a quick walk to the Garden.
He very studiously avoided the crab pen. He was indeed assessing the resources and landscaping, looking at the buildings, the large wheeled bins for gathering rubbish, the idleness of the keepers, the lawns behind the buildings where the grass had been pressed down from where workers had obviously slept.
As the sixteenth hour poured, he stood under an awning, savoring a sour pickleball.
After the rain, a rickshaw ride back within the Secure, along the Arterial to the Third Tier along the river, then purchases: from a trades supply he bought a broad length of canvas, some slim cast iron spikes, and a small mallet; from a clothier, he acquired a robe dyed Pathetics’ Tan, and two wool blankets.
The foot traffic led to a square, with its own fountain beside a public house. He stepped within and using a minimum of verbage and a maximum of smiling, he had recommended to him the best distiller of caml-zre, a sharp, sweet Therihe liquor he hadn’t tasted in years. He bought two jugs, then had all of his burden loaded into a rickshaw.
Back to the Greatsergeant Keep. He now noted the gay yellow banners atop the keep and the bright flowers in the pots outside, and chuckled at what such cheer hid.
He rapped upon the door.
The keep door opened, and the pinch-faced maid said. “Your…master has been seeking you.”
The Earl noted the hesitation. Word of Pehzpersist’s love with the Foofaloof had spread to the servants.
“Ah!” declared Fazgood. “Indeed! I shall offer my apologies! Could you help me with this?”
He thrust the smaller bundle of clothing and tools into her hands. It did his heart good to see her severity turn to anger as they carried the goods upstairs to the increasingly crowded bedroom.
The maid led Fazgood down the hall to the Contemplation Room. In the hall, Fazgood noted the murmur of lively conversation. The maid opened the door.
Laughter rang against the stone. The room was lit orange with the sunset through the window. The Goodwife and the adjutant sat watching the Foofaloof. The audience of two was laughing, weak from long durations of doing so.
The Earl noted that even Warren was bobbing from side-to-side on the floor and squealing.
[He is performing that dance where the heron is stealing fruit from the drunk farmer! It is so base, but it is so funny!]
Calzjha was swaying his head frantically, arms swooping as wings, stepping high and staggering, playing the heron with his bill thrust inside the farmer’s jug. Soon would come the newly-emboldened heron’s challenge of the farmer to a duel.
While laughing, Respiration and Obdurate both turned and noted the Earl. Their laughs subsided notably, and they turned their attention back to Calzjha.
The Earl discovered that he had missed the sound of a human woman laughing. The sound of Respiration’s chiming laugh felt like a drink of water after a long thirst. The realization annoyed him.
But Calzjha’s saucer-eyed, perplexed heron made for good distraction, and indeed the story sharpened his taste for the caml-zre tucked away beside the gold-topped bottle of relish in his room.
The heron smacks the farmer fiercely with a wing and sends him sprawling. Victorious, the heron dons the farmer’s hat and demands the farmer begone. The stunned, astonished farmer staggers away. The heron sits as a human, crosses his ungainly legs, and puzzles over what to do with his victory. As he eats the last wine-soaked fruit, he passes out with feet in the air.
The audience stood, their bright song of appreciation reverberating the room. Calzjha stood, crossing his feet and dipping to show gratitude for the applause.
Respiration looked at Fazgood, and her eyes narrowed to a hawk-like sharpness.
And it was at that moment, the thought of a heavy object in hand, that Fazgood realized that he had approaching the problem of cooking the crab from the wrong direction. He groaned from the simplicity, and could feel his sister mocking him.
Calzjha chattered exuberantly, as usual after a performance:
“The house was in a such a foul mood! Respiration had been gloomy! Obdurate angry and pensive; I think frustrated, but so! And you had not returned! The guests at Contemplation had been desiring our report about the Ijkallas! But I cannot –-“
He used the Adanikarse: “I cannot connive. That’s your strength!”
Back to Rashic, with emphatic discretion: “So…the Brumpf…showed usefulness and gave the inspiration that I dance! The idea was so good, we didn’t dare bother you!”
The Goodwife said testily, keeping pretense for the sake of the two maids organizing the room for supper. “Our contemplations today might have been a description of life in the Ijkalla Islands. However, you were not here to organize our notes. Foofaloof, affections make your employee lax. I would not note this, but you said we should speak freely as peers.”
Calzjha lowered his eyes in respect, but still spoke brightly. “I desire your candor above all. He is terrible.”
Respiration would not be swayed by agreeable enthusiasm. “I would arrange performances for friends, if he would –“
“Ah!” sighed Calzjha. “If it were no inconvenience! Could we invite musicians? Our friends at contemplation could recite! Perhaps a theatre could be rented –“
I need to get this damned crab, quick.
At the stairs, the oldest maid was flustered.
She said. “There is a visitor for the Goodwife. He wishes to pay respects to the Goodwife and the Foofaloof. I told him it was not the proper time, but he insisted.”
Respiration’s normal reserve was removed, and she walked downstairs to the door. “Who would it be?”
At the bottom of the stairs, a figure waited in the anteroom.
“Goodwife! Citizen aspirants!”
The Earl recognized the tone of voice that rang “unctuous official.” He fixed Pehzpersist’s smile firmly upon his face.
A man stepped within the receiving room. He was a middle-aged, pale Therihe with thick red hair. Wrapped around him was a spotless, well-tailored blue coat of fine cotton. His gaze was firmly fixed on the Earl.
“Good citizen aspirant,” the visitor said. “I am here to extend my heartfelt apologies.”
In his fingers, he gently held a plughat before his ascot, striped with five colors.

It’s On Rainy days Like This I Remember A Fond Song From Childhood…

30 04 2014

When On I-95 Near Richmond, Eat Here…

28 04 2014

Look for Dixie Bones BBQ

at 13440 Occoquan Blvd in Woodbridge, VA. I’ve been going here for years and I’ve never had a bad meal. The place as a pleasant family atmosphere and the meat is always tender and well-prepared. The four sauces range from sweet to a Georgia white sauce that strikes like a mellow tartar which goes well with poultry.

Or try Smokin’ Brays BBQ

in Dale City. This is a new place in a shopping mall. The spicy sauce gives a nice burn all the way down to a warm finish and tasty repeats. Their fried okra is great.

“MAD EARL FAZ” CHAPTER 13 (The Enemies Gather)

23 04 2014

The Earl waited until his eyes accustomed, then touched the wall to his left. Cool, grainy granite blocks were secured with thick, crumbling concrete, coarse with flecks of seashell. The far wall was made of thicker blocks, tightly packed without mortar like throughout the outer walls of the keep.

This hidden chamber was barely as wide as a human, and laid in a long triangle, the apex to the left. Within the chamber was a dark cloth canopy. The cloth was parted just slightly, barely and handbreadth. That flouresced with greens and blues.

He turned to Obdurate, and pointed to the apex. “Down there’s the drop. I smell water. So it goes to a canal.”

Obdurate was chastened by the Earl’s non-non-plussment: “Eventually. Did Warren detect the room for you?”

The Earl made an innocent face. “Before we even entered? Ah! That’s some impressive nose, squire.”

[Given a chance, I believe I could!]

The Earl gave his servant a placating nod.

“I saw you leave this afternoon,” he continued to Obdurate. “The servants locked the door. The good lady did not sneak down to unlock the door, and you did not sneak back in past those prison guards who run this place.”

“We could be stealthy,” said the soldier.

“You did not sneak by our room.”

“I could have.”

“Obdurate, please,” Respiration bowed to accede the Earl’s point. “Close the door.”

The Earl pointed at the canopy and its glowing contents. “What is this?”

“I am about to tell you.”

The door was slid shut and two catches within the ablewood parquet caught. The room was plunged into a dim green from busynight peeking between the curtains. Obdurate crossed the room to sit beside Respiration.

He said, “How did you know the passage?”

Whispered the Earl. “Beneath this room, along this same wall is that wooden latticework. That latticework is not in the other keep we visited, and seemed a little too decorative for the General’s tastes. Wood does well with echoes, and spreads any sounds of climbing from behind the wall. I had been thinking on it since I saw you leave this afternoon. I was sure when I saw you on the bed.”

Presented with this reasoning and knowledge, the young officer slumped. His smile gleamed in the dark. “That…that is…impressive. Didn’t I say?”

The woman said, “I found that alcove myself. I paced every floor in this prison hundreds of times. This room is shorter than the ones below. Perhaps I should present myself as royalty.”

The Earl grimaced. “Oh for…”

The Goodwife’s jaw set. “We have two tasks remaining. The first tries well, and you may find it amusing.”

“That would be the fidelity braid.”

The goodwife’s expression grew colder. “Yes.”

“I am sorry,” said Calzjha. “What is a ‘fidelity braid?’”

Both men hemmed and then deferred to the wearer.

At their reticence, her frost deepened. “It is an item which keeps one from allowing others to give you sex.”

Calzjha suppressed a laugh of disbelief.

“This is part of the ‘sands and tides clause’ in the Compact,” explained Obdurate. “Have you discussed that in customary yet?”


He quoted:

“’One to the other,

One presses the other,

Each shapes the other,

Through which landscape is borne.’”

The goodwife asked. “Were you ever monogamous, Earl?”

“She died.”

“Yes,” said Obdurate with sympathy. “I read that.”

“Do not feel pity. She has tried to kill me a few times since.”

The lovers both gave pause.

Fazgood waved a hand. “It will take hours to explain it. Tell him of the braid.”

“The braid is an enchanted object,” said Respiration, still eyeing the Earl, “made by housemages. The braid is worn about the waist and locked by one’s beloved.”

The last was given a much venomous sneer.

“If another gives its wearer sexual pleasure, it tells that person of the indiscretion.”

Obdurate held her hand, his fingers gently rubbing hers.

“How is it that you wear this?” Calzjha asked.

“He is charming, and he succors trust, and he is a wretch.”

Her vehemence rose to such quiet hate, that there was silence after. The Earl made gaze to his associate to still his questioning.

“Good woman,” said Fazgood. “Have you ever had occasion to have the braid off?”

“His physician,” she growled again, meaning her husband, “sees me when I have female illness, the physician unlocks it and ministers.”

“That is simple enough. We will convince the braid that you are ill. Do you have you a sympathy doll?”

“Yes, of course.”

“I have been thinking on this problem. Do you have any garments that may have some stain of your monthly due?”

She rose and walked across the room to her wardrobe.

Beamed the Earl. “A big old stain would do.”

Appalled, she turned.

The Earl’s smile was broad and a farce of guilelessness. To the relief of all, she chuckled.

She made to fling a small box and a garment in mock aggravation. She walked to Fazgood and handed him the items.

“My tampons, washed. My due skirt.”

“These will do. Now an illness that the doll will mistake.”

He found a suitable spot on the skirt and blew his nose in it. With a finger, he probed it into a nostril, then worked his hands vigorously to mix them.

Obdurate blanched and looked to Calzjha, who merely shrugged.

The Earl carefully tore around the stain. “This is an old trick that I learned from a Birqmuirish voluptuary…”

He carefully picked up the doll and wrapped the cloth on as a diaper.

“…and when you are a sex-broker for the Birqmuirish, you are either precise or you are dead. Where is the lock?”

Respiration said, “At last! A request I had anticipated.”

She sat on the bed. She swatted away Obdurate’s attempt at help and rolled down the waist of her nightdress, damp with sweat. Her stomach had a small roll of caramel complexion; she was active, but not some skinny child. A braid of black hair circled her waist, the black gleaming with bits of metal. She reached under the cloth and revealed a plain, simple lock surmounted by a red embroidered flower the size of a thumbnail.

“If the flower turns white,” said the Goodwife to Calzjha. “it means…what it means. A flower on his bracelet also turns white.”

The Earl bent to her lap and examined the craftswork. He gave quick, sharp nods.

“This is basic Rahsic workmanship,” he noted. “See the white charms woven in the braid? The metal the rose is woven into?”

Warren poked his head under his liege’s chin and examined Respiration’s abdomen.

[Yes! Is that silver?]

“Not at all, silver could make her more fertility more regular.”

Obdurate likewise peered at her stomach. “Tin?”

“Good guesses, both of you, but tin would rust as she bathes.”

Calzjha thrust his head into the quorum over Respiration’s lap. “It is too bright for iron.”

The lady glared so that all noted her and set aside their curiosity with many apologies.

Fazgood coughed. “It’s…antimony.”

Respiration chided. “How is it that you know of this still-merely-possible trick from a sex-broker?”

“It is strange, but sex-brokers also play excellent dodgely. The voluptuaries in Harmonium would probably know of this trick.”

Obdurate rolled his eyes. “But then the voluptuary refers you to an extortionist, who’d bring in an obligationist, and then there would be all those forms to fill and….”

Asked Calzjha, “’Forms?’”

“I will…” said the soldier who, glancing at his glowering love, was learning discretion, “…explain later.”

“Good lady, have you any clothing pins?”

“On top of the dresser.”

Calzjha fetched a few long ones.

Fazgood arranged the pins in the crook of his clenched index finger. “The braid is sympathetic, as is the doll. The braid believes you are ill, when it is the doll providing that impression. I act as the physician, thus -“

He pinched the pins inside his knuckles, placed them in the lock, then turned his wrist. The hasp opened.


Fazgood stuck the pins in his pantcuff. He reached around the startled woman and carefully pulled the braid away. Picking up the doll, he wound the braid tightly around its waist over the diaper and snapped the hasp into place.

All stared at the flower, its red appearing black in the busynight. In the distance, an ambulatory rumbled. All stared, all holding their breath.

“I have counted one hundred,” the Earl said. “The flower holds its color. Good lady, you have slipped the prison.”

“Are you certain?” asked Respiration.

“Kingdom magicians would like you to feel ashamed immediately. They are spiteful that way.”

Obdurate took both her hands. “You are free of it finally. Free of it forever! Aren’t you glad?”

The woman was stunned in earnest. She opened her mouth to make a witticism, but gawped. Finally, she sputtered and fell against the captain.

“I…never dreamed…”

“I would avoid disturbing the device,” said the Earl. “Leave it on the doll for months if you can.”

He took the pitcher from the bedside and poured a cup of water.

Calzjha asked, “What of when the General returns?”

All cast a glare at the feckless question.

“I could put it back on,” said the Earl. “That is one of many solutions.”

He passed the cup to Respiration. Obdurate reached for the cup as her fingers touched it, and made to pass it to her himself.

“Splendid,” Respiration said, sipping. “We are such friends now.”

The Earl smirked.

She placed the cup on the floor. Obdurate reached and held it instead.

“As to your payment, you lock-picking bawd?”

Calzjha and Warren shared a snort. Fazgood was taken aback by this description, but kept a jovial spirit.

“Good woman, I seek what I declared. My associates and I will stay here until your young man cooks the moosecrab which I will acquire. Then I eat it. Nothing more.”

“And that’s the reason you’re here?” she asked.


“Obdurate tells me –“

Perturbed, Fazgood touched his fingertips. “I helped kill the Abomination. I fought spies and monsters. I left Adanikar and traveled two months by sea, sneaking into this tight-box of Harmonium, and I’ve done it because I want moosecrab. I honestly, truly would enjoy a meal of moosecrab.”

Calzjha added. “He is taken by desires, but even this is unusual.”

[Once he has decided, he is impossible to dissuade.]

Beside his mistress, in the dark bedroom, on the riskiest night of his life, the soldier had listened. He heard the travails and accomplishments of the Earl anew, and with fresh ears.

Obdurate fully weighed the meaning. “You’re mad.”

Fazgood took an angry breath at that remark.

“And you’re in love,” he sneered. “You have an excuse.”

Respiration snorted. Then she saw Obdurate’s face, and saw his new apprehension at having linked his fortune with the insane. She took pity and stroked his neck.

The Earl flicked a finger at the hidden chamber. “You were to tell me…what that was.”

Respiration grew grim again. Obdurate sat up, and his gaze hardened at the mention.

“It is your last task,” he said.

“My husband,” said Respiration, “has an item which demands attention. Seeing is the braid is short work for you, perhaps you would be able to relieve us of the item.”

“The item is…”

“Something we cannot discuss outside of that canopy.”

Rocking backward with the weight of realization, it was Fazgood’s turn to be flummoxed.

He said, “So, within that shimmering material is something that cannot be discussed.”

A bright smile of relief spread across her face. “So you know about such things?”

“Oh yes. The emperor was fond of despondene insulations.”

Calzjha stepped closer to the glow. “That is despondene!”

Obdurate said, “No one is allowed to have it. Not even Public Works.”

Stepping beside him, Fazgood nodded. “The green threads are spun from the very ether of the spirit world. The blue threads are of pure mendacity conceived into solid. Or is it the other way around?”

[You are correct, my liege.]

“I thank you. That cloth alone is worth a fortune.”

Respiration chuckled with a sad sarcasm. “It is an heirloom. We would never think of selling.”

“I must see inside,” he said.

“Then look,” she replied.

Sucking at his lip, Fazgood considered the outside black canopy, fingered it, smelled it. It was plain black canvas, his nose tickled and clogged from mold. He shut his eyes and with a deft slip of foot and hand, he was inside the canopy. He opened his eyes slowly, so as not to pain them in the bright varicolored light. Even the floor was swathed in the shimmering blue and green plaid fabric.

Atop the cloth, a trunk was at his feet, a normal black trunk for baggage similar to the Millproctor’s luggage. Its ablewood veneer was dull and cracking from neglect.

She did not say anything of traps, but you never know.

He edged around the container as well as he could. He seized a corner of the lid and pulled.

Within, a mask stared up blindly. It was the size for an average sized human, with a sneering smile and wide empty eyes. Its surface was dark and coarse like rock, and glittered with flecks like raw copper. Around the edges of the face, like an ornate lace frill the width of a hand, was an elaborate, interlocking lace of magic sigils. At the chin, Fazgood recognized the hooked sign that bonded sympathetic devices. Near the right ear of the mask, he traced jagged arcs he had seen on talismen that turned a warrior’s skin to living, blade-breaking stone.

These were interwoven with dozens of symbols he had never seen before, or would need hours to discern and recognize. But at the forehead of the mask, was the last key symbol that could not be mistaken, and a chill made his hands tremble.

Impressed there were the disconnected arcs of the Prevaricate, the First Magician, who had oppressed almost half of the world.

He left the chest open and exited the cloth cover.

“Go within, squire. You will have to know of this. Calzjha, go with him. When you exit, do not speak of what you see within.”

The two entered, eyes wide with curiosity. They withdrew in short time, slack with dismay.

“Warren…Warren told me inside what that…is.”

“Remember! The spirits cannot see or even conceive of despondene! All the spirits know of that is –“

“Whatever we say of it aloud. Spirits cannot read minds. Warren told me.”

[Squire, then you saw the material that mask was made from?]

The weasel straightened. [Yes! It is the same as the Secure! Those magic symbols are powerful signs for sympathy and strength. And you saw –]

[The Prevaricate made that mask.]

[Given its material, I must ask the goodwife a question!]

[Please do, squire.]

The weasel caught the woman’s attention. She looked into Warren’s eyes.

All looked to Respiration as she conversed telepathically with Warren, her sullenness melting to wonder at the experience.

With a polite bow, Warren turned back to the Earl, [It is as I fear. She says that the General told her the mask gives power over the Secure.]

Fazgood turned to the bed, and pointed at the secret door. “Is that also a family legacy?”

“It is also your last task,” she replied.

Calzjha’s lip pushed out. “What is it? Warren, tell me!”

The weasel pointedly looked away and hopped next to the Earl.

[Does Calzjha need this priviliged information? I do not think he does, my liege.]

“Yes, he does. Calzjha, we will tell you before the evening is out.”

The poor woman’s eyes, which had been so hard and suspicious, now gleamed with tears. “Is there…? Is there a way to be rid…of that?”

The Earl stepped from the strange-lit passage to the lovers. He looked Respiration in the eye.


All looked to him and to each other for some sign that the earl lied or joked.

Accustomed as he was to people doubting him, he sighed. “I know ways. It is a bother. I will need help. But it can be done.”

It was now the lovers’ turn to reel in amazement.

“How?” they asked together.

“I have not lived so long by telling people what I am going to do.”

He patted the now-ebullient captain on the arm. “Now, you have your long-awaited intentions and I have mine. We would return at fourth hour. Would…that be convenient?”

“You’re leaving?” gasped Obdurate.

“Indeed. I will return on time.”

Warren brightened and sprang to join him. Calzjha’s mouth pulled in disappointment from leaving the presence of warm romance and impending sex, and walked much slower.

Fazgood opened the door to the secret alcove. Light danced and trickled around the room from the canopy. The narrow end of the room showed the first limbholds of a ladrail, the tight series of niches carved by masons into rock to allow passage, but these were large and spaced only for a human’s travel.

Cautiously, the Earl picked up a fold of the canopy and flicked it back into place, putting the room into dim green-night.

He glared at Calzjha, and gestured the young man down the steep ladrail.

“Good…good-bye,” whispered confused Calzjha. He climbed down. Warren picked his way down the limbholds after him.

Respiration’s hail was but a whisper, but sliced through the dim.

“Earl Fazgood.”

The light from the door fell across her back. Her head was turned to him, and her expression intent.

She said, “Keep your promises.”

The couple sat in the dark, in the quiet, precipitous moment, daring only to look at one another, not daring to think.

The Earl nodded and shut the door.


*         *         *


Inspector Mehzadapt kept many homeowners and businessmen in his kettle, and all of them knew not to ask questions when he requested use of property for a night. One manager of stevedores on the Malabar Flats gave instructions to his fellows to leave the last warehouse on the quay, a dark and small and off-putting construction, from loading that evening. Within that lonely brick building, Mehzadapt set-up a headquarters.

Mehzadapt strode down the dock followed by the frightful Adact Varalam. The sea breeze was fresh and crisp still, and the lights of the Foreign Due still visible before the fog would begin anew a few hours hence. From the river came the gargling bark of a river whale towing a barge. Its rolling back made the river wash and ripple, breaking the reflections of the walled compound. The towed barge glided across the water, blocking the view of the lanterns atop the Foreign Due.

The Inspector looked back down the quay from whence he had walked, and saw Humans and Fabri unloading a barge. They were silent, a little slothful, a little curious.

He turned towards them fully and folded his hands before him, knowing his pale complexion would make his boldness visible in the dark. Gray Varalam did likewise, his hands the size of soup tureens. Slowly, grudgingly, the docksmen turned their attention fully to their work.

The Inspector waited a moment to enjoy their respect, and to feel the universe turning well-balanced upon its axis. Mehzadapt walked to the warehouse. Beside the door, Tlezjoy stood up, the lump in his throat bobbing, and unlocked a padlock. The Inspector and Varalam trotted up the three brick steps and walked inside.

Surrounded by stacked bolts of canvas, in the light of a single lantern, sat the young scout who mucked up the watch at Eldest Daughter’s Gate. He cradled his right hand in a white bandage fringed with colored ribbons (to better display his shame). Behind him stood Bookmaker, an expectant smile across his dark face.

“Inspector!” the young man said, and he stood. Bookmaker pulled him back onto the stool. Then the man saw Varalam and froze with a very satisfying fear. There was a second stool, and the Inspector sat. Varalam stood behind the scout, so that the scout could not see the adact and the Inspector at once.

The scout sat still, expecting harm. “The Magnate died before I could make added penance. I…I could do it now. Could I have a drink of liquor? They said that was allowed when I cut off my finger.”

“Good scout,” said the Inspector. “Good citizen, that will not be necessary. Your debt has been paid, and your kingdom has great need of your service.”

It was a labor for Mehzadapt to hide his contempt.

He smiled. “I would like to convey the turn of events to your companion. Do you know where he is?”

“Printer Magnate Foamplenty Street. On the First Tier.”

Mehzadapt gave his most political smile and forced a laugh. “What a useful servant of the Kingdom! I must also commend you: You have done a great service to your nation by bringing me those porcelain bits. Have you told the police about that porcelain?”

“No, Inspector. I figured ‘Let them do their own clue-finding. They think they’re so smart!’”

The Inspector gave a loud laugh, the rest trailing into silent guffaws. The deputies, then the young man also laughed.

Mehzadapt patted the scout on his knee. “That is the kind of blood we need! What a proud soul you are!”

The young man’s sick smile returned. Mehzadapt noted that and sat back in his chair. “You are wondering, ‘Why is this old man paying me compliments? He must want something!’ You are here because very important developments came from your investigation.”

“Ah! What…what has happened?”

“The Magnate’s Office was able to determine that the ones who violated our customs that day were desperate, terrible men.”

“’Men?’ But they were women! The younger one was quite striking!”

“They are men, scout, and we have gained esteem with the royal good with this information. The information which came from your bits of porcelain.”

The young scout beamed with glee. “We embarrassed the police? With those bits!”

“Indeed! There is much difficulty ahead, scout. I will tell you why in the strictest confidence.”

All squirming and fidgeting ceased.

“We have determined that the strangers are here on a terrible mission, and that they must be stopped. We believe these strangers have infiltrated the highest bastions of our society.”

The scout asked, “How are they dangerous? Are they philosophers?”

Mehzadapt nodded grimly. “Yes. We believe they are philosophers.”

The young man deflated. “Deadbeat gods!”

“As it turns out, we know where your partner is. We found him and he sends you his regards.”

“Then he will tell you that all I say is true! I am sick over letting them through my grasp, Inspector. You were right to refuse my finger. I should pluck out an eye for my mistake!”

“He did confirm all that you say. All of it. Your penance is paid, good scout. But a great sacrifice from you is still ahead. You are a vital link in the chain of proof to bind the strangers. You are the one who can place the porcelain at the Eldest Daughter’s Gate. You and your associate are vital to building our prosecution.”

The scout’s color was returning to his face, but his jaw was dropping, so intent was he on the words.

The Inspector leaned closer. “The strangers are part of a plot that seeps to the highest levels of our government. We do not know whom to trust. We fear that you may be ill-used.”

“What do you mean?”

“That you may, by accident, reveal this investigation to the corrupt. That you may be captured or harmed by the corrupted.”

The scout leaned back in his seat dumbfounded. “Who would they be?”

“We do not know! The corrupt could be police who will make you disappear without charge! A judge who would trump up an accusation that all would have to act upon! Even someone in Public Works could sway fate against you!”

“What can I do?”

“You must leave Harmonium, but only for a short time.”

“Leave? To where? I’ve never been outside the city in my life!”

“It would only be to the shrines of Uighlem. You’d stay with our brigades there, under our protection, with a new name. You can make pilgrimage and beseech our deadbeat gods of Therihe to return!”

“But I have family!”

“That is the best reason to hide you. Would you want your family to be harmed by these corrupted ones? A piece of entropy meant to harm you may harm them instead.”

The Inspector put on his gravest face. “Could you live with that?”

“Don’t I get a chance to say good-bye?”

“Ignorance is the best safety. You won’t be away long. In a few months, you’ll return and testify and be a hero.”

“If this…this is a case of high treason, then where are the police? Where are Public Works?”

“I have been directed,” the Inspector said grimly. “to act as your guide in this matter.”

The Inspector waved the two deputies away with a bland smile. “Return to the plaza and I will join you soon.”

Bookmaker and Varalam nodded and faded into the shadows and tramped out the door. Another set of footsteps scuffed from the doorway.

“A boat waits. This deputy will show you there.”

The young man’s nose crinkled and he looked around the room.

Cornpudding’s thick overcoat hung on him loose and flapping like sails of a boat caught becalmed. In the intervening ten hours since the Inspector had last seen the man, the large man had lost easily half his weight. His complexion had become chalky, and tiny red veins had crept up his neck.

“How fare you, Cornpudding?”

“I am well, thank you, Inspector.”

“Do not mind the deputy’s appearance. He contracted an illness, but it is not currently infectious.”

The Inspector stood. “Our young scout needs to be secured and transported to safety. Would such a trip be an inconvenience to you, deputy?”

“The compartment in question is still cramped with the fellow traveler, Inspector.”

The deputy pinched the young man’s shoulder.

“Give me any metal. Be quick!”

“I have none.”


“The other deputies took it.”

Cornpudding turned to the Inspector. “Good superior, I commence.”

Mehzadapt had been watching the scout’s befuddlement with a broad, squinting smile. The squint had been necessary, as the stink of corn and rot was making him blink back tears.

The Inspector said, “Scout, what would you give to secure the soundest future for the brigades and for the kingdom? Would you sacrifice everything?”

The young man was the image of misery, but he put on a brave face: “Yes. I have sworn so.”

Mehzadapt clapped the man’s shoulder. “Sacrifices are made, good scout. How long will the journey take, good deputy?”

Surprise at the question jolted Cornpudding’s expression tight. “A week to make passage entire, I should think.”

“Good scouts, I depart. Deputy, to your work.”

The Inspector strode to the door. A glance behind him saw the young scout staring after him, and Cornpudding lifting the lantern and walking deep into the shadows. Startled, the young man turned to follow.

His voice echoed in the dark. “Where have you gone? Have you closed the lantern?”

Merhaizadapt slid the door shut behind him and breathed the heavy night air. He looked at the Foreign Due, its lights now diffused to a glow by the coming fog. Down the street, the workers were loading sacks of concrete mix onto waiting wagons. A wafer of light on the river was the Malibar Flats Ferry on its run. There was a quick anguished scream from inside the warehouse. The waves swept and slapped at the quay.

He turned and slid open the door.

His eyes had become accustomed to the dark, and deep in the dim warehouse he could discern something like a wriggling sack the size of a man, and the impression of it glistening. It receded into the dark. A moment, then out staggered Cornpudding daintily sliding open the lantern. In the renewed light, it was obvious his girth was much enhanced. His complexion was improved to a ruddy-cheeked haleness.

He raised a hand, still jarringly thin, but the wrist was inflating. “The two scouts are away and on their voyage.”

His insides gave a wet glork.

As Cornpudding shut and locked the door, Mehzadapt adjusted his hat.

He looked up to the Third Tier, to the Greatsergeant Keep, and said. “Now, why are you here?”

“Read, and prepare for beautiful nightmares.” – Alasdair Stuart, Pseudopod.org

22 04 2014

“In THE FLESH SUTRA Tim W. Burke has charted a diabolical, metaphysical odyssey for his main characters, a journey that will take you through Death itself… and back out the other side.”
— Shawn Garrett, Pseudopod

“In Tim W. Burke’s chilling book THE FLESH SUTRA, the reader is taken on a fantastic journey of not only existential terror, but also self-discovery. In this excellent novel, the writing is crisp, the characters sharply drawn, the plot engrossing; as a result, this tightly written and propulsive narrative addresses postmodern angst about humanity and spirituality in the context of body horror and psychosexual transcendence with literary flair and at times deeply disturbing imagery. This is a must-read volume if one truly appreciates not only the craft of writing, but good storytelling and thoughtful takes on what it means to be human, to be alive, to love, and to hate. I highly recommend this excellent work– Burke is an author to watch.”
— Jason V Brock



I am going to RavenCon on April 25 – 27, and having a reading!

18 04 2014

Richmond, Virginia is home to a convention for fantasy/horror media enthusiasts. I am going this year and will be attending these panels:

Writing Believable Villains, Friday, 3 pm
So You Want To Quit Your Day Job. Friday, 8 pm
Genre Flops, Saturday, 2 pm
Life Hacks For Writers, Sunday, 1 pm
History of Ghosts, Saturday, 10 pm
Hauntingly Yours, Saturday, midnight

Saturday the 26th at 2 pm, I will read from my horror novel “The Flesh Sutra”, soon to be released from Noble Fusion Press.

“MAD EARL FAZ” CHAPTER TWELVE (A Horror Is Discovered Before Sexing)

16 04 2014



Fazgood remained in sight of his new patroness, while keeping Calzjha from flirting too much with the guests. He sneaked amused glances at her fuming, befuddled lover. After the guests bid farewell, the oldest maid showed him to his new room in the fortress.

His new abode was in a guest bedroom that had been not occupied in almost five years, one that had been adapted from a guard quarters. The room was on the second floor, the same floor as the receiving room where the contemplations were held. The third and highest floor was the master quarters. The first floor had the servants’ rooms, the kitchen and storage rooms.

Members of the Greatsergeant ancestry glowered from resin-and-ink paintings along his room’s white spackled walls.

The Greatsergeant household staff were three people, cousins gnarled with age whose family had been in the Greatsergeant household since the raising of the Secure. There were the older maid, a wary handyman of a more recent epoch, and a pinch-faced cook; all three gave terse protestations at the interlopers, but went about the task of following their mistress’s orders to the minimum degree. Thin drapes were cast across the windows in order to keep the green of busynight from disturbing slumber. An old, plain washbasin was brought in, along with a table mirror of sufficient size.

Fazgood whispered to his patroness. “My household staff at Weiquant were professional layabouts. These three make my bunch look ambitious.”

Respiration gave a grim nod.

The Sixteenth Hour Rain pounded and drifted away, and Warren and Calzjha had not returned from the Customary. Just when Fazgood feared his cohorts had been arrested, from outside the window came a cry:

“Greetings to all! I speak to you in the Greatsergeant Keep! Your most grateful guest and newest and fondest friend has arrived!”

The oldest maid pulled away the drape and let it fall again.

She snipped. “It is the other guest.”

The Earl took the curtain from her hand and said, suppressing sarcasm, “Thank you, good housedame, for that most illustrative detail. Allow me.”

Respiration chuckled to her lover, who became glummer still.

In the courtyard below, Calzjha was surrounded by surprised and amused on-lookers. He and two laborers wrestled packages, parcels and luggage from a second rickshaw.

Calzjha exclaimed, “I took a moment to stop by the street of clothesmakers, oh…”

He turned and asked a young mother. “What is that street called?”

“Brightpiece Street?” she blushed. Her little girl gaped at the stranger.

“You are so helpful! Brightpiece Street! I bought a few items to have tailored. What a wonderful city this is! Such craftsmanship!”

The Earl gritted his teeth at the spending of money. “Very good, Foofaloof!”

Downstairs at the entrance, Calzjha supervised the train of porters bringing the luggage to his room. He insisted they take a gratuity as well. The staff of the keep stood in shock, occasionally yipping admonishments against dirt and clumsiness.

Warren leapt from his basket and scurried to the wall beside the Earl, [I tried to stop him, my liege, but he was like a great wind! A wind with bank permissions from the Atmospheric Union!]

[Do not fret, squire,] Fazgood glanced at his companion. [He is being our distractor.]

The weasel blinked, [Garish poverty is to our advantage, my liege?]

[His enthusiasm is our best disguise. Who would suspect a criminal near someone this goofy?]

[Ah! At last he shows value.]

A cask filled with rattling bottles was carried by between two poles. The fragrances from the cask was so fresh they stung the nose.

Warren sneezed. [Incenses and perfumes! One would hope our fortune holds out until your ruse is done, my liege.]

[All this baggage gives the impression of a long stay. You and I left this much and more behind when we quit Weiquand. In the meantime, all will be too happy to take our appearance as truth, for they will find his presence too exhausting to ask questions. And even if they do look at us, Calzjha’s servants will be all they see.]

Looking about the bustling, fortified surroundings gave the Earl cause to reflect: Two weeks ago, we were sweating on a ship pressed by the odd and shabby. A week ago, we were running connivances in a crowded quarantine compound, surrounded by the King’s army. Yesterday, intimate strangers in a customary with paper walls and the brigades on my neck. My heart is fluttering. I had forgotten what it was like to be running rampant.

Obdurate pressed upon Calzjha. “The wait was interminable. I had thought, perhaps you had been arr –”

Calzjha interrupted the indiscretion with a beaming smile. “Had you worried about me? The relocation from the customary caused an uproar! I had to promise all that Pehzpersist and I would be back tomorrow.”

He cried across the receiving hall to Respiration, “And Goodwife, at the mention of your name, all spoke of you in the highest regard! I told the aspirants and customaries that I would praise their natures to you; consider it so, as they are all so pleasant! So I say now ‘The Three Moaltrees’ contains pleasant people!’”

[My liege, he would not know if he were followed! He would not know what to look for beyond plughats.]

The Earl bobbed on his feet, barely suppressing The Fourteenth Dance of Glee: The Egret In Love.

[Squire, it does not matter! We are the guests of a Paragon family. Our hosts are beloved and honored above all others. Scouts would not dare meddle with us. Even the police can approach us only with Royal mandate.]

Watching workers stumble in with bolts of cloth, the weasel considered. [Ha! Delightful! Yes, that is true! Still, it worries.]

Calzjha saw Respiration fingering a bolt of scarlet flannel, and he went to her side. She greeted Calzjha, and looked to the Earl, her expression seeming alternately overwhelmed and suspicious.

Ah. She still needs to be convinced. Yes, well, how much would it take to convince a sheltered housewife? What will I have to do, open a pickle jar?

A laborer looked out the door. “What’s this?”

In the courtyard, all were in a commotion of conversation, more so than at the Foofaloof’s arrival.

The maid stepped outside and prevailed upon an errand boy. “What has happened?”

The boy pointed. All eyes followed to a Booloob, its bubble swimming with the saffron of the Public Works department, those who enforce the Royal will. The yellow sphere drifting above the crowd in the breathless air.

“– has passed. Of the Paragons, of the most beloved, let us pause, for the Magnate of the Scout Brigades has passed. Of the Paragons, of the…”

As the crowd before them brought hands to their sides and bowed, Fazgood felt a whoop of joy surge and clenched his throat.

The scouts will be distracted for ten days of mourning! Has my luck been dumped all upon this afternoon! All praise every god!


*         *         *


In the Plaza of the Supurb, a great mob of plughat roughs had converged and were growing in number by the moment. Maroon ascots stood next to yellows and blues. Pale number-coaxers with scarred hijackers. Wobbly, perfume-powdered Booloob sensuaries with sly Exult obligationists.

Wails came from scarred lips, from liquor-hoarsened throats, from membranes of expression coarse from indulgence. Within the eight neighborhoods, there lived and labored over five thousand Scouts, and at the end of a magnate’s life, all had to pass within the entrance of the headquarters, and pray before the mural to show respect.

Within the crying mob, Mehzadapt jostled inside a wedge of his deputies, each awaiting the time within for prayer. Beside him, Varalam pushed crowds away.

The Inspector bellowed, his voice lost mere feet away. “Where is he?”

Varalam creaked in dismay. “Where is he? He is in the most awkward position possible.”

“What? Why is this?”

“Our last suspect is sponsored by the Greatsergeants.”

One of the Paragons? He is here for a few days, and he is friend of one of the Paragons?

Bewildered Varalam shook his head. “It has passed beyond the likes of us!”

What could this man do? A great theft? A subversion of government? Extortion! Some grand obligationism!

Mehzadapt felt his throat roughen. “We must visit this Foofaloof and offer our apologies!”

“There is a week to mourn the magnate.”

“We will visit!”

Varalam startled at this insult to the Magnate’s memory.

Mehazadapt leaned close. “Before his illness, the Magnate himself ordered me to see the case of this stranger through to the end, no matter the cost!”

The Adactoid stilled at the weight of the words.

He seized Varalam’s lapel. “What have they in retinue?”

“What have they?”

“Yes! Surely servants, or errands boys have been hired!”

“None have been hired, sir! They travel simply!”

And quickly. With no retinue who can subvert or betray them. And they strike well and infiltrate towards great sensitivity.

“They do travel with an animal, sir. A named creature that knows laws. A sleek brown-striped animal, like a rat but longer.”

The Inspector looked behind at his story-loving deputy, hearing the words he spoke but yesterday: He is named Fazgood like in the book…the slayer of the Abomination…it’s a ratty-looking thing called a weasel.

Mehzadapt felt his face grow slack. Is Fazgood back for vengeance? To have revenge on me? But why involve the Greatsergeants?

He wrung his brain for all that the foreign reports had told of the Earl of Weiquand.

But he would come straight for a theft beyond measure? The foreign reports were full of this Earl when he was in The Three Cities! Didn’t he steal a fortress? An entire fortress, foundations, stones and all?

Obviously this is The Comet!

But he is also Fazgood, the exile from the Eleven Circles!

His breath came hard.

This could make me Magnate! This Fazgood is an exile from Harmonium, a rampaging menace who is infiltrating the highest of the Kingdom! For his capture, I will get a statue! A monument!

When other scouts saw the Inspector in the plaza, they considered how overwhelmed of emotion he was, and how deeply he breathed to calm himself. It would be hours, well into the green of busynight when Mehzadapt’s turn to the mural came.

After the passage and the keening, the incense and emptying of pockets of all coin and currency, the Inspector next summoned a copy of “The Nimblest Man.” It was that way Mehzadapt learned of Fazgood, Earl of Weiquand: divine-touched rogue.


*         *         *


“You should see this crab,” the Earl whispered. “Huge! Gorgeous!”

Across the dinner table, Calzjha smiled. “Yes. You have said it is a grand crab.”

Respiration sipped the last of her barley broth. “I have not had moosecrab in a few years time.”

Calzjha refused more rice. “From what my associate said –“ (He maintained discretion for the sake of the servants, they lurked so) “– I thought that the streets swam with them.”

“They are expensive, and my husband keeps the household on a strict budget.”

“Ah,” said the Earl.

Calzjha shook his head. “Your husband is…with my people. In Ijkalla. Would that not make you keeper of your household affairs?”

The Earl looked pointedly to his associate. “Ah.”

In the underlit room, head bowed, the maids waited for the dishes.

“I have just learned,” said Calzjha, taking the hint, “of the Paragons of Saline.”

Respiration assumed a familiar role. “Yes. The Paragon families uphold the traditions of how the Saline Compact is to be followed.”

“These are the rules which all of society follows.”

“Not just the society. The gods and spirits negotiated the agreement as well. It brings the Sixteenth Hour Rain at the sixteenth hour, which deposits the precise amount of moisture every day, until the autumnal equinox, when that season’s weather occurs as scheduled. It allows that insects will be readily fed and housed in neighborhoods and not bore into the dwellings of those who know law. It allowed that during the Siege of Harmonium, our attackers were resisted not only by soldiers, but by quagmires on solid ground, by hail from clear skies, by fogs so thick tremblars could not push through.”

Fazgood beamed. “Their fires could not ignite, their food spoiled upon sight, all chaos something-something from the Se-e-ecure.’ I remember that song now. It was playing…on our first day.”

Respiration motioned for the maid to clear the dishes. She stiffened as the servant brushed past.

They spoke of generalities while they were under watch, of Adanikar already confirmed by witnessing friends, of moosecrab, of Warren-as-Brumpf (upstairs, engrossed in study), of moosecrab, of the contemplations and other spiritual traditions.

It was all the Earl could do to keep his head from thumping the stones, so bored was he. When twentieth-hour came, Fazgood almost shreiked with relief.

“Goodwife, the Foofaloof and I must prepare for our studies tomorrow.”

As they walked upstairs to rest, Fazgood pointed to the waterclock and shrugged an inquiry. She held up a finger and mouthed “First hour.”

To their room they retired. Upon opening the door, Fazgood discovered the room lined with boxes, bolts of cloth, and the day’s baggage. On the bed “The Nimblest Man” lay open for study, and upon that lay the Earl’s scholar deep in study.

“Hail Brumpf! Was our room undisturbed?”

Warren yawned, [The manservant peeked in. He saw me looking at him and eased out quick enough!]

“Your reading a book gave him doubts,” smirked the Earl. “It is best we stay crafty with this lot.”

Calzjha hissed. “That poor woman! This is the sourest home!”

“No wonder she has taken up a hobby.”

“I am sure that soldier is more than some distraction to her.”

“Find me my relish. Squire, how goes your studies?”

The weasel carefully nosed the front cover of the book over.

“Mind how the pages cut,” said Calzjha.

[Gracious of you, but I manage. My liege, this book is a ripe lump of cheese.]

“Take care, squire, that relates to my life.”

[You wrought your own life from artfulness. Someone called ‘Forthright Pewter’ wrought this, I suspect, from his bowels.]

“A harsh assessment.”

[The language is stuffed. Descriptions do not flow as much as they gasp from constipation.]

“Then I will have to belabor Goodman Pewter with a brick.”

[The name suggests a Rahsic man, but it also obviously a pen-name. The writer could be of any race.]

Calzjha took a bottle from the chest of fragrances. “Why is this here?”

He showed the Earl the gold-topped bottle.

“Hiding the precious in plain sight. Please replace it with your bottles.”

“If I rub this vile stuff on myself, I will punch you.”

Calzjha then plucked a tiny bottle of emollient for himself and daubed some upon his hands.

[The details of your life are accurate, my liege. The dates, names, and places are all correct. The author thumps one with drama, but I suspect that is the fashion of these ‘dusk thicket’ books.]

“It is their fashion that I should die, and that sort of presuming annoys.”

[You don’t die in this book, which is a change in the style. You just disappear after the Assassin War in The Three Cities, as you had intended back then, and the book leads one to believe you are dead, or living in guarded retirement.]

The Earl snorted. “That is ridiculous.”

Calzjha sighed. “Yes. Isn’t it, though?”

Warren and Calzjha exchanged a quick, rare commiseration.

Fazgood took off his shoes, sat on the bed and helped Warren set the book upon the floor. “Dim the lights. It is the twenty-second hour. Wake me at the last.”

“Do we skulk?”

“We do skulk.”

The Earl laid his blazer upon a trunk and stretched back, enjoying the beautiful view of sturdy stone walls. “I wonder how she sneaks that clod in. These houses have spirit enough to creak the doors and floorboards if they are not respected.”

Calzjha made a sullen face at the insult of the soldier. He drew the shade of the lantern and cast the room into shadow, the green of busynight shadowing the bars against the window.

The two hours passed. Fazgood rose without needing prompting, noted his shirt was wrinkled and so found a fresh one to wear. Warren took a quick stroll down the hall as the Earl combed and made his case to Zhazh, to all alumni, to the spirit of the house. Perhaps to spite him, the door squealed digestively as they slipped out.

Thought the Earl, [You heard nothing in the last two hours?]

[I heard nothing, my liege.]

The Earl improvised a door jam by prying a piece of metal from the unguent filigree, and bending it in half. He ran a thick black thread into the bend, and slipped both ends of the thread under the door out into the hall. When the three slipped into the hall, the Earl pulled the thread until the bend in the metal held, firm but unseen, under the door. A snooping maid pushing the door would think it secured. A pull of the thread sideways, a knock on the metal jam with a sliver of ablewood, and the jam would come free, allowing them to enter their room.

They crept through the dark hall and up the stairs to the third floor, Calzjha carrying Warren, Fazgood leading, to Respiration’s door.

He tried the latch and pulled. He pulled again. It would not open. He turned to his companions and rolled his eyes.

It was no betrayal. It was no bout of forgetfulness. When the Earl was a member of the College of Incorrigibles, Fazgood had been rated by a panel of peers as The Third Most Effective Living, Tangible, Mortal Thief. When pressed into service by The Three Cities, The Earl had mastered their Bedchamber Guard into greatness as an espionage organization.

But it all makes no difference, because the suspicious trollop wants me to prove myself with a damned lock.

Suppressing a grumble, he slipped past the puzzled Calzjha and dozing Warren back downstairs and into his room. He stripped more ablewood from his cane, another sturdier one from inside a trunk lid, and a piece of wire filigree from the fine carrier of Calzjha’s fragrances. He tucked all within his socks and slipped back into the hall.

Back upstairs he went, his reflexes managing all impatience and anger. Betwixt the door and jam slipped the ablewood and the latch eased up. The door eased open without a sound. All slipped inside.

In the darkness, on cushions before the great bed, sat Respiration and Obdurate. All drew close to whisper.

“We were worried,” said Respiration, lacking any trace of concern. The dark did not conceal Obdurate’s amusement at the Earl’s anger.

Calzjha smoldered. “’An inside job’ means that the person inside does their job. But how did the captain get in?”

“I needed confidence,” she said.

Said the Earl. “Here is some confidence.”

He pointed to the far corner. “The hidden entrance is there behind the parquetry, the one with the corner adjacent the Secure.”

Respiration and Obdurate looked to each other. Obdurate’s smugness evaporated.

The Goodwife nodded. “That does inspire.”

She walked across the room to the aforementioned corner. He slid open a panel of parquet paneling. Behind twinkled an amazing light.



11 04 2014

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“MAD EARL FAZ” CHAPTER ELEVEN (The Players Manuever For Position and Seafood)

8 04 2014

The rickshaw bumped over a groove. Fazgood leaned close to Calzjha.

“The two of you get to the square. When I come back, we will go talk with Mrs. Cheat-The-General and Captain Doomed.

“Look at that book, Warren. And tell me how it ends.”  

The rickshaw stopped and let Calzjha off with his Basket-of-Brumpf. As Calzjha gave one last worried look, and the devoted weasel gave the Earl one last affirmation, Fazgood bade them farewell for the next hour.

The rickshaw whirred away. Calzjha watched, growing smaller, until he was lost in the crowd.

Watching the crowd as he passed, the Earl recited the entire College of Incorrigibles Alumni Praise twice over, and was starting a third round when the rickshaw eased before the wide brick gates of the Garden of Edification. He paid the driver, then removed and carefully folded his apron. He tucked the apron and his cane under his arm, and strolled into the park.

He passed a group of school children in white tunics following their teacher out. A few older people in aprons swept the brick walkways, or stood silent vigil at vendor stands. He wandered ambled around the courtyards, identifying paths towards the exits, locations of tool sheds and the like.

He finally came across a series of aquatic tanks, fenced with a low barrier. He passed a tank with a printed label for “Knighted Frogs”, with frogs slouching on their carp-mounts idling near the viewing glass. The next tank held an “Alpian Mitre Beetle Nest”, which was a great bubble about the size of a human torso, transparent from the trapped air held in place by some marvel of instinctive engineering, the insides of the bubble crawling and flicking with beetlery.

It took some squinting at the glittering water, but finally Fazgood made out a squat, antlered shape drifting on the bottom of the tank.

The crab was a beauty. The moosecrab was about two handspans wide at the shell, and another two worth of legs at each side. From the front of the crab were two thick, flesh-filled antlers.

The crab sat in the shade, plucking and eating unseen items from the bottom with the tips of tapering, serrated pincers.

All I’ll need is a thick blanket to smother those claws. I had heard that the large old ones lose flavor. But how to get my dinner out? Daytime is better; nobody expects thievery under the sun. I’d crack it open now if I could get away with it!

Fazgood looked around. The water in the tank looked to be about shoulder deep. Spring over the rail, jump in the tank, grab the crab. But he restrained himself.

Put it in what? A trunk? A basket for carrying babies? Then walk out of the zoo wearing drenched clothes. No. I’m going to need a distraction.

Perhaps I should have Calzjha perform one of his celebrated illnesses.

He gave an aggrieved sigh at that undertaking.

Calzjha just cannot fall down and be nauseous. He will ask “Which illness shall I do?” And he will need to contract something spectacular. Such as? Heatstroke? Animal hysterias? The Dancing Plarvies?

The Earl trod down a side path to a small stone building without a sign.

The floor of its pen was a sandy bowel about ten strides wide. The sand was mixed with straw and grain, and insects flittered just above the surface. Near the middle of the bowel lay a gray-skinned beast of six cables in length. It had only two great forepaws for limbs; the rest of its body followed in a huge roll that came up to Fazgood’s shoulder in height. The beast’s long head held an unusually stretched mouth like that of a whale’s. Its tiny eyes gave Fazgood a bored once-over.

The Mad Earl smiled. A tremblar! This zoo is comprehensive!

The large mouth opened to show even, ridged plates of baleen. The sand beneath the long grey body trembled, and it glode forward on the strength of the vibrations, mouth open wide. The grain, bugs and dust shook into the air like a cloud. The tremblar settled its head within the cloud, the dust swirling into its mouth. It smacked its lips and belched a shiny mist.

Fazgood rather liked tremblars. They always had a wary, if resigned attitude, and very simple needs.

Back at the plaza, he purchased a seedcone and a sugarcane from the dozing vendor. He took a bite from the seedcone as he walked back, and spent the next moments before the tremblar’s cage sucking molasses and seeds from his teeth. Twisting off the tip of the cone, he tossed it over the fence. The candy landed before the great beast.

The tremblar swayed its mouth and snuffled. The sand shook, the cone bounced up and the morsel sucked away.

The Earl broke off more pieces of the cone and flipped them ahead of the tremblar. The creature trembled the ground and glode smoothly along, following wherever the food landed.

The Mad Earl took up his cane and cracked its tip of on the bricks of the sidewalk, just enough to make the cane splinter along an end. He twisted a sliver from the canetip, then peeled off another thicker sliver.

The Mad Earl slipped over the rail to the cage door and examined the lock. He slipped the slivers in, twisted them and snapped the lock open.

The Earl looked to the tremblar. “Tch! Tch!”

The long grey head turned to the door. The sand beneath it shook and pounded. The tremblar glided around and approached the door. But as it came to the rise before the doorway, the vibrations caused the sandy slope to spill and cascade. The tremblar grunted and puffed, but it could not gain purchase in the sliding sand.

Yes, it can pound anything to pieces as long as it is on a solid footing.

The Earl considered its struggles for a moment. Nodding, the Earl snapped the lock shut and slipped back over the rail.

On his way out of the zoo he inquired of a keeper. “When is feeding time?”


*         *         *


The thirteenth hour was the hour of plans, thought the Inspector.

In the alcove of the scout headquarters, Varalam the Inspector’s huge Adactoid deputy filled the doorway. Behind, criminals and scouts murmured and scuffed by, their shadows crossing behind the Adactoid’s back, while snatches of plans slipped by in the air, plans for lunches and cullings and retributions.

Varalam said, “A maid at the Shaded Moaltrees told of a suspect who took up studying there early this week. The suspect is the servant of an official from some islands.”

“Why haven’t I seen him?”

“The customary muddied our first search. Customaries cultivate, and sometimes love their gardens too well. The rules say we have to inquire with them first; sometimes they hide some weed they fancy; then they claim misunderstanding; then we can’t prove they’re lying and being poisonous.”

That customary is due for a burglary. I will demand nothing be left but seat cushions.

The Inspector asked the deputy, “Do you know which island this official is from?”

“I do not remember which islands she said, Inspector. Does that matter?”

Mehzadapt was in a foul mood. “Details are always important, deputy! Was he from the Hermitshells? From Abduryne? I need to know what kind of trouble this fellow could stir up! Wring your brains, or I’ll wring them for you.”

The Adactoid’s scarred brow creased more at the invective. He bowed. “You have jarred loose my memory. The maid said he was from the Ijkalla Islands. Those new islands freshening our kingdom.”

“Then they will need to know how things work here in Harmonium.”

Varalam crossed his hands, relaxing at the Inspector’s satisfaction. “The maid also said this official is a hazard. The maid said the official thrashed a couple of scouts at the Amusatorium.”

“How was this so?”

“The scouts were trying an unscheduled robbery.”

“That is possible. Was this official armed?”

The deputy shook its great gray skull. “She said this little skinny reed of a fellow beat them into the infirmary with his bare hands. Do you want us to snatch this Therihe, his assistant?”

“No, we may not have to. If the story about that robbery holds true, that will work for us very well. On behalf of the Magnate of the Scout Brigades, I will want to offer my apologies to this official and to his associate. Keep a watch on that customary. When I confirm that story about the robbery, we’ll wait for my Therihe to show up. We’ll size him up without causing any problems.”

“Little reed of a fellow?” I would like to search his wardrobe for white dresses.


*         *         *


In the Lanthornmount Square mural, The General had just opened his mouth to exhort the final pursuit of the Prevaricate’s houda. Two brown-robed magicians from Public Works peered at details of plaster and paint.

Fazgood noted the silent exortation and thought, The battle’s almost done! I am late!

He trotted across the square to Greatsergeant Keep. Calzjha met him at the gate, the book and Warren’s basket in his hands. An elderly maid permitted them entrance.

The Foofaloof said, “I was bored waiting for you, Pehzpersist, so I took a walk to the next keep to the south. It had been maintained by another founding family.”

From inside the basket, Warren thought, [Impressive fortifications in their day, my liege. They had been much adjusted by the years, but still inspiring.]

They passed through the oak and iron door and through a narrow, stone-walled anteroom. Once inside, they noted above their heads the spikes of a portcullis. They passed under, and the maid showed them through another formidable door. Beyond that, a larger room, just as austere, brought them to a set of stairs.

Mused the weasel, This smell! It is sweet and it burns. Such a lot of grease!

The Earl opened his lips a little and sniffed. “I smell it, too.”

At the top of the stairs, a stone balcony followed the width of the anteroom. An iron trellis finely notched and scalloped allowed for archers now long dead, for a final stand that was never necessary.

Warren nudged the Earl’s thumb, [The keep we visited is a revered shrine. This keep has its portcullis ready to drop.]

The Earl considered, [And iron is a treasure in the Kingdom. Someone has a lot of influence to keep this iron handy.]

They turned left at the top of the stairs, walked along the balcony, and entered a receiving room. The Earl counted twelve people in the room, walking about, whispering occasionally to one another.

Fazgood knew of the tradition of “Contemplations.” It was tried a few times among the thinking classes of Birqmuir; it had to be discontinued due to brawling. Fazgood’s preferred form of contemplation required liquor, darkness, and was called “conspiracy.”

Across the room by a window, shadowed by latticework, the officer stood with a tall, dark-skinned Rahsic woman in plain, gray dress. The two noted the newcomers. The officer smiled and whispered to his companion. The woman’s peaceful smile was fixed as if chisled into granite. They crossed the room in greeting.

The soldier walked to them with open arms. “Good aspirants, I am very glad you have arrived. This is the Goodwife Respiration Greatsergeant. Goodwife, this is the Foofaloof of the Ijkalla Islands, and his associate Pehzpersist.”

The Foofaloof said, “Goodwife, I am so pleased to have your hospitality.”

Respiration was slightly shorter than Calzjha. She glanced at the Foofaloof’s plain suit, the grace with which he presented his hands, his poise and the way he fulfilled the Six Common Qualities of Beauty.

Her smile broadened, but with little warmth. “The adjutant says that you are a man of notoriety.”

The soldier coughed and gained her attention. He made a meaningful look to the short Therihe in the business suit beside the youth.

The Earl said, “The Foofaloof is notorious to the unjust, goodwife. I am also grateful for your tolerance.”

Another woman, a smaller Rahsic in utilitarian goodwife weeds, stepped to the fore. “Goodwife Greatsergeant, I was wondering if you needed any help with organizing today’s contemplation.”

“I thank you,” said the hostess. “But all is in order. These are our visitors from the Ijkalla Islands.”

Introductions were performed. The Brumpf was included, but Warren kept his thoughts hidden to maintain his disguise. The goodwife took the Earl aside.

Goodwife Greatsergeant said. “Adjutant Childteacher told me of your meeting. Sometimes the adjutant can be quite fanciful.”

“Yes,” The Earl said. “He is enthusiastic. That can be a danger.”

“It invites much trouble from all sorts of people.”

“Indeed. There is an old saying: Even when an archer aims well, still it’s a damn arrow flying around!”

“Indeed,” she replied, and had a sip, her eyes watchful.

Loudly, Obdurate said, “I noted when we met that you are conversant in Adanikarese.”

“Perhaps,” the Goodwife bowed her head, her smile disappearing, “you were mistaken.”

The Earl wrung his brain to remember the conversation in front of the Amusatorium.

Calzjha smiled and said smoothly, “We trade with the Adanikarese. Do you speak it?”

In her eye gleamed a challenge; she said in Adanikarese:


“What will displace what can not be placed?

What forever dies without being broken?”


Obdurate translated for the assembled.

“A riddle! Intriguing!” said a tall, burly Therihe judge with a great black beard.

“Ah! I know this!” said the Foofaloof, and he assumed the simple, strong gestures of sanctified theatrical training:


“This displaces the not-placed! This eases, always traced:             

An echo in a canyon after words are spoken!”          


The Earl sighed and said in Adanikarese, “Is that so? Do not ask me. I am here for the food.”

He gave a thoroughly Harmoniad shrug.

Obdurate translated and all were amused, especially when Pehzpersist performed the shrug anew.

The guests remarked on the Foofaloof’s cleverness and grace to the grudging, newly contemplative hostess.

[Squire,] considered Fazgood to Warren, [I lived for years in that damn eardrum-piercing City of Noise. How is it that these homebound wretches speak the language better then me?]

[My liege, you concentrate on those words that are important. Their language is all unneeded air.]

[Well said, squire. That is why you are on my payroll.]

[Thank you.]

“If…if, uh, we could,” said Obdurate, “complete our sharing…I will be glad to bring the Foofaloof for individual…you know, to speak….”

The guests had already smiled at familiar, stammering Adjutant Childteacher and drifted across the room to their own considerations.

“That riddle has another ending,” Respiration said in Adanikarese. “That is depressing for a lovely day. I also learned the one about ‘hope’ being broken.”

“The sun fades,” said the puzzled Foofaloof. “Yet it is always there. Hope must be sought.”      

Obdurate gently smote the Foofaloof on the shoulder. “Yes! Yes! Heed him! There may still be a way –-“

Even in a foreign tongue, the soldier bit his words to be discrete.

The goodwife’s lip curled. “I thought you said the other is ‘The Nimblest Man.’”

Fazgood growled. “I am happy you speak of me now. I was so sad and lonely.”

Obdurate was reminded, and became angry. “You have my book. Return it.”

“You say the book helped you find me. I will return book when we finish looking at it.”

“I need it now.”

Fazgood cast his eyes down and gestured to the basket. “After he has examined it, we will return it. This I promise.”

The Brumpf popped his head from the basket and fixed the young soldier with a defiant stare: [And my considerations will not be rushed!]

The lid banged shut. Within the basket was the aggravated flip of a page.

Respiration stood stunned. “I was looking in his eyes, and I heard this voice…this irate voice in my head.”

The soldier puffed, then: “If …if Warren promises, that is well enough.”

The other goodwife approached. “Good Respiration! I am very sorry, but time grows short and we haven’t had a chance to speak with your guest and I know I’m –“

The Goodwife Greatsergeant was still reeling from communication with Warren.

Quickly, the Foofaloof affected shock. “’No, no, no! I have been wrong for neglecting you. Could you introduce the Brumpf and I to your comrades?”

The fellow contemplator said, “Of course! But I saw your animal’s ears just now. Would it need water?”

[Pah! Animal!] resounded in Fazgood’s head.

“Do not worry. When the Brumpf is in need, he is most communicative.”

“My son has a mustimouse, and he is so much like your companion!”

[Like a mustimouse! This madwoman!]

The Foofaloof opened the lid for her to see.

“Your Brumpf seems so happy to see me. Hello…”

Fazgood appreciated that Warren kept his further thoughts to himself.

Respiration said, “Odd…talented creature or no, I do not believe you are this Fazgood.”

Obdurate puffed even more. “We have talked of this! How did I find him other –“

She merely had to whisper to cut him off: “Who have you found, with this untested method? Someone akin to this Fazgood? Someone who pretends to be Fazgood? Perhaps you found this…magicked creature.”

The Earl sighed. “Do you have an abomination in your house? I’ll kill it.”

“Leave my house. Whatever Obdurate has planned cannot succeed.”

Fazgood glared at Obdurate. “Her spirit lacks.”

Now it was the soldier’s turn to cast eyes down. “She is just…modest…and she…. You have to understand…her position.”

The Earl mocked. “I…I understand you tol-told me she-she like pl-plan.”

He flicked a pinky at the adjutant and said to the goodwife. “He speaks poorly when he wants. Get pity; get time to think a lie. You not fooled.”

The burning in her eyes dimmed a little, and she gave Obdurate a chiding, sideways glance: “No. Not at all.”

The young soldier smirked.

Fazgood added. “He wants to plow you. You know that.”

“I do not understand.”

“Plow. He wants to plow you.”

Both Rahsics’ jaws dropped with surprise. Respiration seemed about to laugh, and Obdurate about to throttle.

“You want to plow him?”

Respiration blushed. For the first time in their meeting, she almost laughed. Obdurate hung on her next sentence, misinterpreting her hesitancy as betrayal.

The Earl growled to Obdurate. “She means ‘yes.’”

To both: “I help you, nevermind who I am. He wants to plow. You want to plow. I want a meal.

“And Foofaloof, Brumpf and I need stay here.”

The soldier flushed anew and leaned down. “That was not our deal! What are you doing?”

Fazgood said, “Adapt, soldier. Goodwife, I speak with you alone.”

            Obdurate struggled to hold his indignation.

            “Just for a moment,” said the woman.

            With that, the adjutant turned and crossed the room his head down in barely-convincing thought. They watched him leave.

            Fazgood went to a table and poured a cup of water from a pitcher. He whispered in Rahsic. “Adanikarese burns my brain after a while. May I offer you a cup?”

She waited.

“Your young man is rash. He charged in with that Adanikarese. He could have waited to see if the Foofaloof and I would betray ourselves through a misplaced conversation. You would not have made that mistake.”

            “No,” she said. “No, I would not have.”

The Earl sipped. “You need some ready common sense to stop those charges of his. Yours is a delicate situation.”


“You do not want him hurt.”

“No. I did not want this…deliverance. He wants us to see through our fate together. I want him to…. There is no escape for me.”

She looked ruefully at the cup. “He is determined that good can come of this.”


A couple drifted close by, and Respiration resumed Adanikarese. “He spoke of your meal, Pehzpersist. The servants are difficult.”

“Yes, I met your maid.”

“The meal may be possible. But to stay here is not necessary.”

Fazgood sighed. “Yes, it is. Our soldier has already talked too much. If we are to deal, we stay together, keep each other in the deal.”

“No,” she replied, with finality.

Damn! I must be out of that customary! This keep is perfect! Who would question me here?

“I get him out of this,” the Earl ventured with a grimace. “I…will make sure he will not go to prison. Do you understand?”

            “Yes,” she said. “How?”

            “I am the Nimblest Man. You get me a meal and refuge, I keep him out of prison.”

“You have tonight,” she said, “to make an impression. If I am not impressed, you will leave.”      

“Our deal is struck.”

Then the Therihe man set down his cup and said loudly. “Your Adanikarese is splendid, goodwife. As a service to your husband, I thought that we might form a study group towards better understanding. To bring the world to your door.”

            The goodwife noted and said, just as loudly, “Everyone! I think I should help our aspiring citizens. To have the knowledge of those who have traveled abroad, that would be most enlightening to our circle.”

            “Perhaps they could answer questions!” said a member of the Public Works.

            Calzjha blushed. “I do not want to take up your time.”

            “It would be our honor!” someone cried.

            Now Obdurate paled. “Perhaps…if they…oh…it is possible –-“

            Calzjha gave a panicked glance. “I would not know where to begin.”

            Fazgood asked, “How much does your circle know of the Ijkallas?”

            “We know only from the official dispatches from the army,” said the Goodwife. “They are dry reading.”

            There were knowing chuckles.

            Said the Earl to the captain in a whisper not-quite-discrete. “It would be useful to have a look at the dispatches. So that we provide fresh insights. The Foofaloof likes to prepare a proper talk for people he admires.”

            Obdurate took the hint. “Yes. I could provide those.”

            “The Foofaloof is so modest,” Fazgood overheard.

“A pleasant person,” said another, and the Earl restrained rolling his eyes.

            The Goodwife took a deep breath. “To facilitate this, I will offer the hospitality of my home. They will reside here.”

            A stir across the room!

            The judge came to her side. “Is that wise? Who would chaperone?”

            The Earl braced himself for Calzjha’s lie, because Calzjha always told this lie whenever possible:

            “Goodwife,” smiled Calzjha, with nervousness a touch overacted. “Pehzpersist and I share a deep love for one another.”

            Another stir! Openness about romance was always such a social gambit!

            To make the illusion good, Fazgood smiled and made soft eyes to the Foofaloof. The Foofaloof’s adoration concealed a flicker of mischief.

            Warren thought, [He maneuvers for romance between you again! The temerity!]

            Much was discussed regarding the continuing of classes at the customary, and the regulations regarding aspirant sponsorship, towards which the judge gave useful advice.

            Calzjha sighed. “Judge Mezzo-Baritone, you were about to talk of Abduryne. Is it beautiful?”

The juror seized a lapel. “There are few places more beautiful!”

“What did you enjoy?”

“I stayed in Llaldzl, the capital. Every morning I looked out of window, and I could see hundreds of spires reflecting green in the sunlight. The spires, and most of the buildings, are crystals, beautiful and perfect…”

Calzjha led the magistrate and a knot of other contemplators to the balcony.

[Warren,] thought Fazgood, [Let us take up immediately. Tell Calzjha to go to the customary and let them know where we may be reached.]

[But we’re hiding, my liege!]

[Not any more, squire! We are under the protection of a paragon family of the kingdom! Our enemies must now tread lightly! Have our luggage brought, and take care of the dirty laundry. Smell the room for any hair or what-have-yous laying around, and we’ll burn what you find.]

[I will do, my liege.]

Warren’s head poked from the basket, and he stared at Calzjha, awaiting his chance for a discrete thought.

            Fazgood looked to Respiration, who gave a grim nod. Beside her, Obdurate’s eyes flickered like those of a man trapped on a galloping horse.

The Earl said under his breath. “This crab had better be good.”

“MAD EARL FAZ” CHAPTER TEN (Alert: Seductions!)

2 04 2014

When dawn of the next morning cast its stark shadow upon the customary, Fazgood and Warren waited until figures moved at the windows. The Earl tucked his loyal charge tucked under his arm and walked briskly across the street. He slid open the front door a little to peek. A maid walked by on her way to the common room. He slipped in and up the stairs as quiet as wind. In the upstairs hall, he edged past the husband of the married couple walking bleary and scratching to the shower. A final slip through his door. He slid it closed and turned.

Khouro the Fabri piled before him. The mossy being curled with chagrin.

Warren dropped to the floor with a thump.

The Earl suppressed a sigh of resignation. “Good morning, aspirant Khouro.”

“Good…good morning,” Khuro squeaked. “I was…here to see…I had just entered…”

Calzjha’s voice trilled from the bedroom. “Good morning, Pehzpersist. How went your morning walk?”

“Splendid, Foofaloof,” Fazgood continued the ruse Calzjha had begun. “This is a beautiful neighborhood. Did you sleep well?”

“Ah. Yes, I did. Khuoro came here to study this morning. I will join you downstairs, Khouro!”

The being fidgeted. “Yes! I will be downstairs! For…for the morning routines! Good morning!”

It was possible that Khouro was downstairs before the door was completely closed.

Fazgood hissed to Calzjha in Adanikarese, “Can you not sex everyone we meet?”

Calzjha opened the door to the bedroom, looking refreshed and relaxed, picking bits of green from his hair. “His people are tactile. He felt nervous in this new city. I used my training to align his energies and bring him to focus.”

“’Tactile’! The Fabri are carnivorous plants. They used to ingest lawful people before joining the Kingdom. Look at your wrists!”

“He took a little blood. He kept to fluids only. The more of my being within him, the calmer he will be.”

The Earl sputtered at that, then shoved images of vines and roots from his mind. “It is a pox to my plan!”

“He entered before dawn. I told him you were out having a walk.”

Thought Warren, [Call this ‘bodyguarding’, does he! Or ‘being a decoy’?]

“Yes! Call yourself a bodyguard?”

Calzjha whispered, “No, you call me your bodyguard. Yesterday was the first time I actually protected you from anything.”

“’Decoy!’ You were to be decoy!”

“Being here, I suppose I was a decoy.”

“Did you expect me to lay here by myself when someone offers himself? How is that to be ‘as usual’?”

Fazgood growled and hastily adjusted the blazer on the chair. He stripped off his shirt and undershirt, and found clean ones in a drawer. Calzjha’s attention snapped to Warren, who was waving.

“What is it?” Calzjha said testily.

[You are a harlot!]

Calzjha spat with exasperation. “Khuro has a enlightened understanding –-“

“Nevermind. I can use him. I may have him smother that officer.”

“We need to find you an understanding Human woman.”

“I disbelieve that such exists!”

There was a knock. “Please rise!”

Fazgood affected his daffy smile and chimed loudly. “Good morning! We are on our way!”

While still wearing his pants, he tied on his robe and slid open the door.

They showered and relieved themselves (Fazgood smacking his forehead with unusual vehemence) and ate breakfast. The morning’s lectures included a Booloob who explained its community and nature.

“You are answering questions much more accurately today, Khuoro,” said the customarian.

Calzjha smiled with pride at having brought the universe greater relief and alignment.

After the lectures, the fellow aspirants filed out to the porch. The customarian cast an annoyed look at Fazgood rousing from his doze. The Adactoid took Calzjha aside. They watched the Therihe slouch from the room.

Calzjha spent time on the porch speaking with the other aspirants of their plans for when they became citizens. When judicious, he slipped away upstairs.

He slid open the door to their room, where Fazgood dozed.

Fazgood said, eyes seemingly closed. “What is it? You have that look.”

“Kitpoktik told me that scouts had been asking about someone of your description.”

“He ratted me out. Just because I snore in class.”

“No! He bent the truth. He told them you were not in their house, when you were actually in the bathing house at the time.”

Fazgood opened his eyes further. “Why did Kitpoktik do that?”

“As a favor to me. And he hates the scouts.”

“Ah. Did Kikpoktik say what color the scout’s ascot was?”

“I forgot to ask.”

“Nevermind. If it was that scout we beat up coming back with a grudge, he would have been asking about you, me, and the Brumpf there snoring in the laundry hamper.”

A wet whistle came from the open basket.

Fazgood rose from the chair and stretched his back. He switched to Adanikarese. “The scouts are looking for the Great and Monstrous Comet. Someone else will come today or tomorrow. A delivery person or child says they return a thing of value. They go to another guest or a maid, not Kitpoktik. We must away.”

“Are we being watched?”

“I do not know. I doubt that. They would not have asked, It is not the police, and that is good.”

“Should I speak with a customary across town? Or an inn?”

The Earl held the heels of his temples and rubbed. “Let us take a walk. We have to visit some friends.”


*         *         *


His heart pounded as they walked. The Mad Earl muttered prayers and imprecations behind his closed lips. “Zhazh, please keep your elaborations at a minimum. Respected elders of the College, steal all doubts and make my spirit light….”

He had decided they would walk down to the Arterial and join the foot traffic into the city. Walking with Calzjha always eased his mind a little. The young man’s gait was naturally quick, and Fazgood hated walking with sluggards who would make the Earl a slow and easy target. Calzjha was also inclined to occasionally stop and enjoy little details; sunlight flickering through tree branches, vendors singing, the textures of seamless stone walls and wrought iron gates. These breaks afforded Fazgood ample opportunities to survey for pursuers, scouts, police, villains, or demons.

[Hear anything, squire?] asked the Earl.

Warren’s head poked from the basket Calzjha held. [The gulls are much noising, my liege, but nothing odd.]

The Earl inquired a citizen regarding a print shop. After a quick stop which included petty thievery, the three were again on their way.

Calzjha sighed at the bundle his scuttling companion held. “Where are we walking to, exactly?”

“We go to deliver this job of printing.”

Calzjha shrugged. “I am perplexed.”

“Good. Remain so.”

Fazgood made The-Sign-Against-Zhazh yet again and kept walking.

They turned up a side street past an inn. Outside the inn, policemen in maroon jackets had queued the residents in front of the building. The police checked the papers, clothing, and luggage of those visitors. A pair of women trembled, surrounded by maroon jackets, and being lotcasted in public. Fazgood and Calzjha looked to each other with rueful smiles.

They proceeded to the Fourteenth of Hikelmonth Stairs to Harmonium Proper’s Third Tier. Here the pedestrians were more learned and administrative, more colors of uniforms, more conversation, more trees. They passed Lanthornmount Square. Fazgood took himself aside behind a fountain to a public privy, where he relieved himself, and from his bundle put on an ink-stained smock.

He returned to Calzjha and said in Rahsic, “Keep this.”

He handed over the gold-stoppered bottle of relish. Calzjha placed it in the basket.

“Entertain yourself for a few minutes. I have a package to drop off at the Army Headquarters.”

Calzjha guffawed in Adanikarese, “Ah! You will have a look at the soldier!”

Fazgood nodded and tugged his hat at the benediction, tucked the bundle of printing under his arm and trotted down the street to the Square of the Superb.

He tugged down his hat further as he entered the square. The courtyard spread eighty paces across, and at the opposite side stood the Headquarters of the Scout Brigades. He strode past the Palentine Offices, chasing away thoughts of guiltglasses and crimedowsers. Fumbling with the package, he ran up the concrete steps, and through the red brick entrance into the headquarters of the Kingdom’s most esteemed fighting force.

The anteroom was small, cool and dim, and smelled of old and polished wood. Any further entrance barred by a thick wooden wall. A window in the wall allowed a soldier to review all visitors before granting entrance through the adjacent door.

Fazgood said to the soldier, “I need to give this printing to Captain Obdurate Childteacher. He is in the –-“

Fazgood fumbled with the paper at the top of the stack. “I cannot read the address. I am so sorry. I merely need to give this order –- the proper order –- to Captain Childteacher. The columns on the requisition forms we delivered are lacking. These forms are the proper forms.”

The young guard waved a hand. “Leave the forms here. I’ll make sure Captain Childteacher receives them.”

“Ah! He is here! Good! I would do that. I would leave them, but…”

Fazgood pulled a handkerchief from behind his inky smock and within his jacket, and wiped sweat from his brow, making sure the guard saw his ink-stained fingers. “…my master has told me to…apologize for the inconvenience. I am to apologize to the good Captain myself.”

From behind the guard, an older soldier grunted. “Leave a note.”

Fazgood puffed. “Oh no madam! I cannot! We take our responsibilities seriously at my shop! I will stay here all day if I must.”

The older soldier pushed the young soldier aside. Fazgood saw that she turned enough to show off the sergeant’s circle on her sleeve.

The sergeant looked up. “No. No, you will not. I will throw you in the street.”

The Earl opened his eyes wide at the sergeant’s insignia, then fumbled the bundle more.

“Madam! Sergeant! Please. Surely you understand that amends must be given face-to-face.”

At the prompting of responsibilities, the sergeant made a grim, disgusted face.

Fazgood added, “I will be very quick. I do not want to add further inconvenience to you as well.”

The sergeant stepped from the window out of sight. A lock rattled behind the door. Fazgood sighed pitifully, and put his head down to be thrown out.

But the sergeant did not come. Moments passed, and Fazgood knew she had gone to seek the Captain’s permission.

Finally, another rattle, and the door opened.

The sergeant waved a meaty hand. “He will see you. He knows not what delivery you refer to, but perhaps you can sort it out. His office is all the way up the stairs and third door on the right! Be quick!”

Fazgood followed the sergeant up the narrow stone stairways and past uniformed clerks to the office demarcated.

“Captain, here is the printer.”

“Thank you, sergeant,” came a familiar voice.

The office was cramped and hard-pressed against the engraved rafters of the building. A small window provided no relief from the heat. In one corner sat a small desk covered with high, but tidy stacks of paper and a book. A small numbergrinder sat behind the chair, its switches and crank all up and at the ready.

At the desk sat the young officer. He looked at Fazgood and his eyes widened with shock. Fazgood gave a hard, sidelong look at the soldier beside him.

Obdurate took the hint. “Thank you, sergeant. You may go.”

Fazgood stepped into the office and spoke loudly, “Captain, on behalf of the Micklescreek Print House, I offer my deepest and most heartfelt apologies for our error. We value –- nay, sir! –- revere! The trust given us by your office and by the army!”

The captain sat at his backless chair with an expression of absolute dumbfoundment.

“Captain, the guildsman responsible for that mistake is none other than myself. It is to my lasting shame that I did not adhere to the time-honored methods that have made the Micklescreek Print House the producer of inventory forms you trust! This matter drew the attention…”

As he spoke, he glanced to the doorway, eased the aghast soldier slightly to one side of his desk, then began rifling through the stacks of papers. As he rifled, he read the titles: “Dunflats Sawyers: Bill of Lading”. “Helkek Brownfeathers: Terms of Payment”. “Axeflower Mark: Invoice”.

“…of our own beloved guildmaster. He has undertaken a process of training all his print workers, myself especially, to ensure this never happens again. Once again, I state with all of my spirit that Micklescreek Print House honors its decades long work in supplying all of our armed forces and government. Let me take your hand, sir!”

The Earl took Obdurate’s right hand. The soldier tried to snatch it away, but flinched at the strength of the grip. Fazgood inspected the ink in the fingertips, felt a callous on the top of the same finger. As he inspected, he said:

“On behalf of the Micklescreek Print House, its traditions and its personnel, please forgive my mistake and be assured that it will never happen again. We would be honored and relieved if we still retained your trust.”

It is then that Fazgood noticed the book on the desk, and saw its title on its cloth cover: “The Nimblest Man”.

Fazgood asked, “Does the Micklescreek Print House still have your trust?”

Obdurate peeped, “Yes. Indeed. It does.”

“I am so relieved. I will report your continued confidence to my superiors. Please understand that your account will not be charged for the printing of these forms, and for your next printing as well. With your permission, sir, I take my leave.”

“Yes! Permission granted!”

“I will see myself out.”

With that Fazgood snapped up the book on the Captain’s desk. He sprang into the hallway, so as to be in full view of any passersby.

He turned back. “Do remember, sir. We value your trust!”

The Earl clambered down the stairs and out of the building.

Sauntering to his compatriots, Fazgood declared, “He seems legitimate enough. Put this in the basket. We go to our next visit.”