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.”