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?”
“’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?”
“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 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.
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?”