On the lush green playing field of the Terhane Residences, Obdurate watched beings in yellow robes ran through a gamut of beings in red robes. A small yellow ball skipped along the grass, clacked along by strange-curved sticks held by the robed players. At intervals, all would stop, then ignore the yellow ball to walk purposefully in seemingly random directions.
Throughout, more robed figures holding banners ran through the pearly-pink arches and onto the playing field beyond these, the guest residences of the Royal Family. The banners ran in circles, the ribbons swirling around each other into a red and yellow eddy. They broke away to the four corners of the room. A shout from every throat began the play. A wicker ball ablaze with red ribbons flew from one end of the room. The standards began running around the borders of the room as another yellow ball broke into play.
Obdurate struggled with a basket of the personal property from the army lotcaster’s work-alcove. He could have sent an aide or a messenger to deliver the belongings. But the night before at dinner, Fazgood’s suspicions had aggravated Obdurate’s guilt. His anxiety over Respiration’s fate was so heavy that he could hardly breathe; he had to come here to prove the Earl’s suspicion was baseless.
From up the near sideline, a young woman trotted, flushed and sweaty in a yellow robe, and confronted the officer. Obdurate explained his business and proffered the basket.
The young woman nodded. “I’ll see that she gets her property, Captain. Set it down, sir.”
“Do not trouble. I can give it to her myself.”
“You are not allowed to enter further, captain. The Masters of Lots have closed this. Members of the Great College only.”
Looking for a clue, Obdurate turned his attention to a rousing yell from the court. “I have heard this is a complicated game.”
The woman’s attention had been drawn to the yell, and was cheered by the obscure event.
She laughed excitedly. “Yes! It is the first time many of us have played it since school days at the Great College.”
Obdurate considered the army lotcaster’s puzzlement from the previous morning.
He ventured. “This is unusual to be playing such an elaborate game above all other responsibilities.”
“It is a Therihe tradition that creates good fortune and helps banish evil and discord. We are playing to keep the tradition.”
“Pardon my question, but I seek to understand. Why do you play now?”
Her enthusiasm collapsed. His eyes actually focused on Obdurate’s, then glanced away. “It was…mandated…”
“And you play to keep the traditions.”
“Yes, captain. Indeed. It is as you say, to the keep the traditions. You really must go, Captain. Please excuse my abruptness, but I must get back.”
“Ah! Yes! Indeed! I thank you!” Obdurate said from reflex, angry that he could not find a way to press his advantage and learn more. He turned and walked back up the lawn to the empty, narrow stands.
Empty stands. Banishing evil and discord. The only one who could mandate every lotcaster would be the Masters of Lots. Above them is only the Royal Family.
He remembered Hakek-Akakel from two days before, the Exult giggling over the navy’s lotcasters being brought to find violators of the royal custom at the Eldest Daughter’s Gate.
He glanced back and saw the young man trotting away down a side of the field. A man in a yellow robe was hobbling toward him waving for help. Obdurate looked around the field; perhaps there was some sort of clue to calm the rising panic in him?
Obdurate noted an alcove on the other side of the entrance, where a group of lotcasters had gathered.
His reflexes screamed, Be obliging! Do not snoop!
But, oddly to him, he remembered ‘The Nimblest Man’, where Spymaster Fazgood walked along the streets of the Prevaricate’s capital, surrounded at every turn by twisted foes.
The Earl had related:
“All is a walk in the glade,
from demon castle to Unnamed crypt.
Nonchalance is the order, for you are caught
you are imprisoned,
And not even then if you convince them otherwise.”
This emboldened the officer to pretend to note a detail upon the lawn.
He practiced his alibi: I noted a flower and wondered about it. It wasn’t there at all! What is wrong with my eyes! So sorry!
It was so that he walked up to the enclave.
All the backs, yellow and red were turned toward him. There was an older woman, another flushed Therihe of about sixty graying years, who was presiding over the discussion. A sheave of brown foolscap trembled in her thin fingers. If Obdurate stepped forward just so, he could use a tall Human in yellow and a Booloob draped with red ribbon to block the older man from seeing the officer’s eavesdropping.
Said a woman, “I tell you! The problem is with the interpretations! The players are properly prepared! All fouls and infringements are declared and translated!”
The yellow back giving Obdurate cover shifted, and an arm waved. “The problem is with the gaming! The signs and behaviors are holding true to the participants! Every fumble, stumble, cheer, shout, every variable is considered in the definitions and twice-confirmed! Some player or proctor has not been properly cleansed!”
“If the participants are tainted, then we would have no syntax at all!”
The older woman said testily, “But what of the syntax?”
Paper rustled. “‘The Comet is throughout every neighborhood!’ ‘The Comet is known by every citizen!’ We are back to the days of oracle vaguery.”
A younger voice protested. “The police told us that three beings gained entry, one appearing as a widow, another as her daughter, and another as an animal. We deduced that The Comet is a soulful mortal, as anything without a soul or immortal would have turned up during the customs casting.”
“Indeed!” said the yellow back. “That rat is –“
“Yesterday’s castings confirm that The Comet has two associates: one is a soulful mortal who is of a race not from the Kingdom, and who can appear as a beautiful young woman.”
Obdurate’s mind cast to Calzjha, who claimed some startling abilities the night before. The officer’s stomach sank.
“The second associate is a soulful creature of great intelligence, who can appear as a rat.”
All of Obdurate’s reservations broke into a flood of anxiety.
Oh Exhus. Exhus, what have I done?
The yellow back declared. “I tell you it is this Rat who we should be concentrating upon. I am certain that creature is the leader.”
“The Comet is The Comet,” said the older woman. “That being is the one the spirits say is the most dreadful of the three! The Lotcasters in the Principality cast The Comet thirty years ago, and what appears?”
All hissed. “The Marvelmeme.”
A whimper escaped Obdurate’s throat, The Marvelmeme!
Thirty years before, that terrible creature had awoke from some sort of dormancy, oozed through fissures in the mountain rock, and slowly convinced two thousand ri’s worth of land to become a living wall of rocks, trees and embedded beings. Radiant Semantic, the third Royal Prince, fought and transformed the creature into basalt, saving the day, but unable to save the hundreds it had absorbed.
I have placed Respiration in the same house with the Marvelmeme!
But the older woman had been speaking!
“– not asking the correct questions. If we cannot deduce this, we will waste time trying to get the Jezr-Ji to agree to new vocabulary.”
A Booloob’s quaver. “What can be mortal, yet permeates all places and soulful beings?”
Obdurate sucked his lips to keep from exclaiming, A dusk thicket tale! Through that story, everyone knows the Earl! Because of that story, the Earl is everywhere! The Earl’s exact location is lost in the fog of familiarity!
The older Therihe thumped a shoulder and pointed at the game. “We will change the players at the rising of Minque. Summon the senior students from the academy to aid us.”
“If we do not know what the nature of The Comet, what use is the game?”
“Perhaps we will be lucky and the banners will touch one who knows –-“
Obdurate staggered away, reining the blind run that seized his feet.
The Earl was right! He must be gone tonight! He must be gone now!
* * *
Around the Earl, the inn bustled with patrons eating their dinner. Tables were crowded with a heartening babble of languages. The air was thick with smokes and the smell of spilled liquors.
He tried to summon a thirst for tziembroask, but failed. The innkeep of the Three Bellflowers slipped through between the tables to greet the new arrival.
Peering at Fazgood’s burden, she asked, “What have you in the cask?”
“A favor for which I will pay! I know you are busy, but have you a tight steaming pot and a corner of an oven I may use?”
Her head cocked with puzzlement. “Our cook would find it difficult to work with another at her elbow. We are serving dinner. Would you like to know what she cooks tonight?”
Fazgood set the cask on the table. “I am sure it is delicious. All I ask is for a pot of water, an oven, and an hour’s time. I would feast on all that is offered, as long as I can try my hand at cooking these.”
The cask was opened and crabs revealed.
“Good sir! We are serving oyster stew this evening!”
From up the kitchen steps a waiter struggled past with a blue porcelain pot.
Damn all of this! I will have my meal!
Fazgood resisted snarling, and picked the chest up.
“Let us ask the cook!” he crowed, and he hobbled down the stairs with the goodlady close behind voicing protests.
At the bottom of the stairs was a brick room with blazing fireplace and ferocious heat. Two young humans, bald-pated and arms shaven, shucked and chopped oysters and peeled crayfish.
Behind a long stove of red porcelain and enamel, a woman banged a ladle on the side of a bubbling pot. She looked to the intrusion.
“The residences are upstairs!” she roared.
Fazgood slammed the cask upon the floor. “Cook! You have earned a blessing! For yours is the only kitchen in the entire of Harmonium trusted by the pallet of the Great Foofaloof of the Ijkalla Islands! Tonight, you shall cook for the Foofaloof and that respected paragon, the Goodwife Greatsergeant! The Foofaloof insists that I provide all due assistance to aid your artistry!”
The cook goosed into amazement.
Always flatter artists, noted the Earl.
It was this way that the corner of a stove procured, and a true cook swayed to the cause. The cook procured a pot as he unpacked the crabs. He tucked the antler away within his jacket.
The cook examined the crabs and deemed them passable. She sniffed the spices and found them wanting, to which the Earl demurred humbly to superior knowledge. The relish bottle! The cook picked it up in her huge, calloused hands.
The proprietress cooed. “Such skillful glasswork!”
The cook held it to the cookfire’s light and squinted. “What is in it?”
Fazgood forced a smile through his trepedation at the bottle’s handling. “It is a rare relish the Foofaloof enjoys!”
The cook asked, “May I taste some?”
“I will ask the Foofaloof.”
The Earl kept the written recipe from the shopkeep well hid in his blazer. The pot was set to boil. The cook set to a simple mixture of her own herbs, sea salt, and vinegar. The Earl slipped the five crabs into the pot, and the antler within the five crabs. The cook poured her mixture atop of all and the lid to the shiny blue pot tightly sealed.
She said, “Crabs boil in one half an hour. The Foofaloof and the paragon will not wait long.”
The Earl blessed the goodlady proprietress and the cook, and the cook blessed the Fooflaloof, and all swept away a tear of joy.
“Let us retire to the dining room,” said the proprietress.
“I would be here when you –- what would be the word? Decant?”
“Ha!” laughed the cook. “Decant crab like a liquor! All the crabs will do is steam and steep in a pot! There is no need to fret! I will call when the pot is opened!”
The Earl and the innkeep stepped into the noisy dining room. A maid called the goodlady away, and Fazgood was left on a stool to rest his aching knee.
Indeed, he mused. What a day of activities.
He let his mind to wander for a moment, feeling comfortable with the slackness.
I wonder what my life would have been like if I had not had to look over every crowd I found?
That was a bad question, for it set his mind to wandering more to spite him. He noted a group of five merchants slurping soup, laughing, with no need to guard. There was a time he would have picked their pockets for spite.
He assessed his situation.
I still have the knife, he considered. I have money. I left the skullwarmer at the keep, but there are weapons at hand all over in a dining area.
I tossed the false toolbag. That was a mistake, but it would have been more foolish to keep it. Should have hidden it. I was followed. They stole the toolbag. Calzjha can be traced in a heartbeat with his bodyparts to guide whoever has the bag.
It would take them at least a half-hour to arrive if I called Warren now. Calzjha is gelded and not yet healed. The goodwife and that captain would be useless. Whoever has that toolbag will roll them all up rather tidily.
The Earl kept close to the wall. He hunched away from the front door. He glanced around. The rafters. The brick walls. The good-natured babbling creatures in civilized clothing. Their voices crashed his ears. All squeezed upon him.
The door. Was there someone at the door? Someone who just ducked out?
The proprietress, near the door. She was staring across the room at the Earl then set to chatting with a sudden wide smile with a table of diners, a grevious look in her eyes, the unmistakable sullen guilt of an informant.
If anyone asked for me, she would have to tell or suffer.
The crab is in the pot. Capture is outside the door.
A moosecrab. I’ll be killed in my home, a home I long ago foreswore, over a moosecrab.
He considered, weary, Be killed over that as over a pile of money. With money, you die hungry.
The Earl felt a nudge at his shoulder. He spun.
The cook said, “Your crabs are done. I was about to put them out.”
“I am sorry. I was startled.”
He motioned for the innkeeper. “Did someone ask for me?”
Her face was all blank innocence and eyes unblinking. “Were you expecting someone to ask?”
I thank you alumni, thought the Earl. She reveals The Tells of Treachery Numbers One, Three, and Eight.
“I’ll need a room upstairs to eat. Away from the others.”
The goodwife remembered to smile. “Shouldn’t you be taking the food to the Foofaloof?”
“I will be taking the pot to them,” he replied. “After I eat.”
“You should go quickly then! The pot will cool, and the flavor will dim!”
Said the Earl. “I am famished. I would like to take the pot and eat my crab upstairs.”
“You should eat your meal with your master.”
“He is a forgiving soul. I note that no waiters have gone upstairs.”
He pulled out all of the money remaining in his pocket. The sheaf of specie was still thick enough.
“I would still be on my way quickly.”
The goodwife’s smile ceased its painful stretching.
Added the Earl. “If I have visitors I can receive them there.”
She shook her head, protesting visitors are best received at home, but her eyes were still fixed like a doll’s, demonstrating Tell Number Four.
He stuffed the money into her hands and followed the cook into the kitchen. She drained the water from the pot into a sink. When she turned to a serving bowl, Fazgood seized a wood spoon and tumbled the crabs in, and set the bowl’s lid on. He picked up the bowl and slipped by the cook before she could ask of the odd object.
Fazgood pressed by the goodwife and slipped through the crowd and up the stairs. His right knee stabbed in pain from his past exertions.
A lantern cast dim light onto the walls and window, and reflected a moony sheen against the stacks of plates and bowels on a hutch at the far end of the table.
He set the serving bowel upon the table and plucked up a plate. The goodwife and a maid was at the door.
“Please get me a pitcher of water. And a bottle of tziembroask,” he said to the maid.
Even if I don’t drink the tziembroask, he thought, It will good to have a friendly face in the room.
Seeing Fazgood preparing to dine, the goodwife flipped one of her wringing hands and sent the maid running.
Should I wait for the water? Ask for some fruit or cream?
There was a scuffing at the door, and Fazgood noted the goodwife had gone.
He cast his mind down the tunnel to contact Warren. The light at the tunnel grew, and he saw through Warren’s eyes. In the shared bedroom, Calzjha sat up on the mattress. On the far side of Calzjha, Respiration sat.
The goodwife was speaking, “—- Obdurate sent word that he would join us for dinner and that everyone must be in attendance. There is no –-“
[Warren, I believe I am about to be murdered.]
[What! What is this! Calzjha, the Earl communicates –]
[I became hasty, and I became sloppy. I am followed and betrayed to the Brigades. I am at the Three Bellflowers in the Foreign Due. I suspect you may find the body there. Now I will eat moosecrab.]
[My Earl, please –]
Fazgood pulled himself out of the tunnel. He sensed Warren’s mind pattering after him, but suppressing Warren’s insight required minimal will, doing so left only a nagging feeling of something creeping under his chair.
A bitter thing to do, but there is no need for an audience.
He raised the lid and was enveloped in steam. Within the crabs was the antler, gleaming with sweat, specked with herbs.
I lost my will. I went mad finally, and enchanted myself on a suicide errand. That must be what happened.
He flicked the still-hot antler onto a plate and slipped the knife from his pocket. He pulled the dull blade and laid the sheath to the side.
Crack! The knife went into the shell as a delicious, salty steam curled.
The relish! He pulled the bottle from his inside pocket.
He admonished himself from before the journey (the Hrikinik-employed, still-sharp self of just months prior), Let’s what all this is about.
He cut and unraveled the gold seal into a length of pretty gold ribbon. No metallic tapping.
He untwisted the stopper. His nostril hairs felt the fire of the relish first. His nose stung as if swarmed by tiny, biting ants.
Tap tap tap the bottlemouth onto his plate. No relish came out. He growled then the knife fished up the bottleneck to goad the relish. A flow of yellow fluid, chunky and moist, spilled out, accented by tiny black flecks and tinier red seeds.
A scuff at the door brought his attention up to the maid with a pitcher of water and a brown bottle of –- the dim light gleamed upon the elaborate porcelain work, the leaves of the stylized rosebush gleaming umber as it reached up and around to the blue-waxed stopper at the top. He recognized the bottle’s style.
Maktmerkt Eicht Bonded Tzeimbroask.
The pitcher of water he ignored.
The Earl took the knife and dug out a steaming, juicy alabaster piece of moosecrab.
He stabbed the knife tip into the chunk. He swirled it into the relish and –-
“Aspirant Pehzpersist, though I remember different,” said the Inspector at the door, behind the frightened maid. “You have come up in the gods’ favor.”
The knife stopped halfway to Fazgood’s mouth.
“You can go,” the Inspector said to the maid. “We will not be disturbed.”
The maid slipped away. The Inspector stepped into the room. The lamplight caught his copper curls and made them gleam red. Beyond the maid’s skipping steps, the Earl noted that the conversation downstairs had gotten noticeably hushed and breathy, whispers of anticipation echoing up to the place of interest. Other slow, methodical clacks of steps followed the Inspector’s, more companions coming up the brick stairs stealthily.
Fazgood considered the moosecrab just inches from his mouth.
What will this do if I eat it? What would I be capable of putting in this relish, and what would happen if I ate it now? How much mayhem could I have imagined to mix in these spices?
The Inspector stepped to the table and pulled up a stool. “Your meal is interrupted, and for that I apologize.”
He sat down with an affable sigh, not asking permission to sit. Behind him, a huge Adactoid filled the doorway.
The Earl’s heart fluttered in panic. He took a breath. He scraped the knife against the plate edge, easing the crab morsel back onto the plate. He turned behind him. He held a plate, which he showed to Mehzadapt. He turned the plate over and covered his food to keep it from going cold.
Another deputy took up position at the door, a wide-eyed and grinning Therihe.
Mehzadapt chose his words. “You…have found advantage since last you were in our city.”
“I…have never…never visited Harmonium.”
A thick pink hand rose in protest. “You were born here, and lived here a time. I remember you. Do you remember me?”
Fazgood gave shrug. His heart pounded.
The Inspector leaned, his fingertips upon the table. “Do you remember the name Mehzadapt?”
“We were friends as children! Surely you remember me? I have changed, but my name has not.”
The Earl shook his head, his lip formed a protest that would not come.
The Brigadesman tapped the pot. “What have you here?”
Fazgood, frozen, surrounded by sneers, did not reply.
“What is it?” snapped the Inspector.
Refelxively, Fazgood said, “They’re fallow.”
Mehzadapt picked up the lid of the tureen with the remaining crabs, peeked and poked at them, then dropped the lid back with a clatter. Fazgood jumped.
The Inspector threw his hands up in a mockery of gossip. “I have something far more interesting than crabs.”
He snapped a knuckle and the toolbag was passed forward. The Inspector dropped the toolbag onto the Earl’s covered plate. Fazgood’s hands flew to keep the plates properly set, covering the antler.
“A concerned citizen found this bag. Imagine how awkward it would have been if some child had opened the bag.”
The Inspector reached. With his left hand he seized Fazgood’s clenched fingers. The Inspector’s right hand pinched Fazgood’s cheek. “Why in Exhus’ name do you have human testicles in this bag?”
Fazgood endured the pinch. The Inspector let go and clapped his shoulder.
“I know not what this bag is about. If you are collecting a debt, or enacting a vengeance, then you have found woe. The Scout Brigades are the only ones licensed to those tasks. This bag would have been very awkward for you if it had been found by the police. So, you are obliged to me. Speak your obligation.”
“I, Pehzpersist, am obliged to you –“
“But you are not Pehzpersist!” yelled the Inspector in Fazgood’s ear.
The deputies chuckled.
“You are named Fazgood. You were exiled. You have returned for mischief and you are obligated to me.”
The Earl’s chin was tucked against his chest, heart curling into a child’s fear.
“Speak your obligation. There is our way or the way we treat strangers. You are home. So speak your obligation.”
A whisper. “My name is Pehzpersist.”
The Inspector snarled and waved a hand. “Has Reedtickle arrived?”
“Is Reedtickle arrived?” said Varalam. “Just arrived, he has.”
Another wave. The Adactoid made way and the Booloob floated through the doorway, brown sphere shimmering in the lamplight, plughat planted firm. The lotcaster drifted over the Inspector’s shoulder.
Reedtickle warbled. “The wind over the river buffeted one, but here I am. What do you wish?”
Mehzadapt leaned back upon his stool. “I want his lies sent flying back down his throat.”
“A tone to squash lies. Should he know that it will be very painful?”
“Let us show him. Commence the tone.”
The Booloob vibrated, and a sound filled the room. It tickled deep within the ear, and cause all hold hands to their heads. On the table, the plates vibrated in slow, regular rhythms.
Impatient, Mehzadapt spat. “What is your name?”
“My name is Pehzper –- ugh!”
The Earl whooped and gagged on the lie as it was forced back down his throat and back into his lungs. He coughed and held fingers up to his mouth. He coughed again and they spattered with blood.
“A few more like that,” the Inspector grinned, “and you will be drowning in your own juices. Let us try this again. What is your name?”
Fazgood coughed. He stared at more blood and paled. “What is your business? I do not know you!”
The Inspector leaned forward, realizing what was said. He looked to the lotcaster.
The bubble-being dipped and bobbed, in a manner like a shrug. “He does not know you, Inspector. Either his memory is poor, or he had no past with you.”
“I know different,” Mehzadapt whispered. “What is your name?”
Fazgood’s lips tightened.
“I am hungry,” he said.
Fazgood pushed the plate the plate from over the antler. In one move, Fazgood seized the cracked antler in one hand and smeared it through the large pile of relish upon the plate. He bit.
Once past the crack of the shell, the sweet, buttery, long-dreamed and yearned for crab-meat squished into his maw. The relish mixed with the meat and fell upon the exposed flesh of his mouth and tongue.
The first taste of that relish is sweet, near the tip of the tongue. The tongue was baffled by this honeyed bath, and in a misguided joy tossed the mouthful over its back.
That is the fatal error with Lava-God-Vengenace Relish.
As the mouthful slides upon the crest of the tongue, the taste buds burn. The burn then seems a coal of white-hot iron. The throat closes from the fumes from the red ntotlo pepper, a pepper specially bred to season the sedimentary meals of the stone-palleted Molaks.
This activates the subtlest ingredient of all: the slightest hints of magnesium liberate, the spiritual quality of magnesium liberated from its physical form. Sages have never found a practical application for this liberate, a liberate so fiery that ghosts flinch at its touch, except as the secret ingredient of Lava-God-Vengenace Relish.
* * *
Fazgood felt a yelp echoing in his head. All of his tension, the stink of the room and of the deputy, the very pressure of the humid air, all vanished.
He knew this feeling. He looked down. Beyond his feet, which were limned with a slight port-colored haze, he saw himself on the stool at the Inn.
The Earl’s body leaned back very slowly into a ghastly choke. Beside the body, the Inspector slowly rose from his stool.
The deputies also had dropped their poses of menace and had leaned forward in alarm. All were frozen, no, moving very, very slowly.
Had Fazgood lungs, he would have sighed with annoyance.
He looked about his mauved form to mists rising to the unseen firmament.
The mist revealed nothing.
[Hrikinik, you grasping noisemaker!]
Came tickling through the supernatural surroundings an irritation, a grating metallic rattle.
Through that rattle came a trilling, [My Comet! Too long! Too long! Too long it has been!]
The mist parted and two figures approached.
The one to the left was a great viscid column, green, dripping and gruelent.
Drifting before that was a pile of blue fleshy folds, enrobed in a scintillating crystal fabric. Its chest and thorax rattled and sucked with valves, reeds, and bladders. Atop its blue head sat a set of black pipes cut with mouths, a living pipe-organ.
[My Comet!] said H’rikinik, [So bored! I have missed your antics so! You are days late in your call!]
The Earl looked to the pillar of mucous. [Greetings, Kri-Tzh.]
Fangs opened in the slime. [Greetings, Fazgood.]
Fazgood looked to his former employer with a sneer. [Why did I do all of this?]
The Half-Prince opened his hands in supplication. [You asked humbly for a favor! I am always willing to indulge my thralls, particularly my most amusing ones.]
The Earl looked down to the room. Deputies slipped forward, the Booloob eased back, and the Inspector dodged, his face crushed with an odd disappointment.
Hrikinik drifted close to block Fazgood’s view.
[I see our bottle of relish! And you have tasted your Harmonium Moosecrab! Ugh! What did that poor crab do to you?]
[It wasted my time. Why am I here?]
[Revenge, dear Comet! You are here in Harmonium for an act of vengeance! Thirty years ago, someone betrayed your mentors to their fiery death! It was your dearest wish for thirty years to enter Harmonium and murder the traitor!]
Fazgood snorted. [You can not fool me! The Eleven Circles died but…but…]
H’rikinik’s orifices opened for a roaring laugh. [But you do not remember how they came to be in the fire! A trusted messenger brought them all together in a secret hideout, after telling the Brigade captains the time and location!]
Below, a deputy had reached the antler in Fazgood’s grasp. The Inspector had retreated to the far corner of the room.
[You were that messenger! Betrayed by one who told you a lie.]
Fazgood chilled. I killed them? It is my fault they are dead?
[You escaped,] the Timpanate fluttered his hands, [and lived your life exiled. You buried your guilt and rage deep! Its fire propelled you for decades!]
The Inspector’s grimace of disappointment grew, grotesque in its slow blooming.
[And thirty years later! Ah-ha-ha! Idle chat with a merchant informed you that your betrayer was now exalted! Exalted in the home that denied you! Exalted over the lonely graves of your friends!]
The Earl racked his mind. [Why can’t I remember any of this?]
[That is the genius! That is your genius! You are no murderer, but you have cunning almost beyond mine! You had to get into Harmonium, past their admittedly skilled lotcasters. Those customs-casters would find an ambitious murderer with no exertion! How do you get past the lotcasters? Tell me!]
A deputy had picked up the sparkling glass bottle. It was up to his nose, and his entire face inched away from the proximity.
Prompted Hrikinik, [When working with the Emperor, you told me you had encountered a marvelous poison gas! Two inert ingredients. By themselves they attract no notice.]
Quashing the hateful memory of that poison, the Earl saw the sparkling bottle anew.
[That party trick of yours of putting your loathing into a bottle and serving it to guests…]
[Yes! The relish! Contains your memory of your friends’ betrayal! Contains the motive for the murder! Bereft of motive, we replaced your need to be in Harmonium with an obsession with…ah-ha-ha…what passes for unique cuisine! In the home of…ha-ha…of gummy toast!]
Hrikinik was lost in laughter: the sound of sacks of metal beaten against a herd of sheep.
[And the motive was placed in a substance no sane person would swallow,] Fazgood considered.
The Earl said, [Gods, that is a good idea.]
[I would have thought of it.]
[But did you, oh great Timpanate?]
The Adanikarese seethed. He gathered his composure, [I did mean to tell you something very important to your brilliant plan…]
He leaned close.
[Moosecrab is fallow this year.]
Enraged, the Earl lunged to throttle the Half-Prince. The tower of mucus pressed.
[This is our land, Faz,] warned the horror. [He says the word and I will make you a cyst on my ass, and you know that.]
Fazgood swore many profanities, then: [What of the book, this “Nimblest Man” book? Did you know of that?]
The Sorcerer sobered. [What book?]
The Earl told of “The Nimblest Man.”
Said Hrikinik, [The spirits said it was best you undertook your endeavor immediately. This is to your advantage, and it explains much. Look as I teach.]
Long fingers strummed at the mist. The clouds parted from above the slow franticism of the Bellflower. In the distance was a glowing mountain of light.
The Earl gasped at such beauty.
[What is that?]
[It is the spirit of Harmonium, such as it is. Adanikar has such aura and subtlety that an army of gods would willingly –]
[Then you bored me again. Did you have purpose in showing me?]
Above the mountain, through the wine-lit glow, a giant spirit in flowing red and yellow robes. Its hands, larger than ships, waving through the purple mist.
Hrikinik chuckled. [The Temporary God searches for you. It should have made short work of you. But it seems you are everywhere in the city, as the book has made you so. Gossip is a ruse the Adanikarese know well for baffling simple spirits. Limit your physical touch with others and you will keep safe.]
The Earl shook his head. [Another god to avoid.]
[My little snorting havoc-wright, I have fulfilled my part of our bargain. I have but one question: How is the nerve toy you stole from me?]
[Calzjha is well. And I won a bet, if you remember.]
It was Fazgood’s turn to laugh. It felt good.
[Have you experienced my nerve toy yet?]
[Calzjha does what Calzjha wants to do.]
[You shall in time. The temptation is too great, even for one who dreads comfort.]
[So spoke the one who dreads everything.]
The Sorcerer made to retort, but with a smile and a wave of dismissal, the Timpanate said, [Dread? Your life-long enemy sits before you. You are too mild to kill him. That is something to dread!]
* * *
A wheezing roar filled his head. Cold water poured into his mouth and overflowed over his face and shirt. Hands pounded his back.
“Drink this! Drink this!”
“Ugh! What whim took him to even taste this stuff!”
“Should I get a physic? Perhaps I should get a physic?”
Fazgood swallowed and pushed the pitcher away. He held up a hand and took a breath. His throat felt shriveled. Tentatively, his tongue wiggled, dazed yet rejoicing to have survived. Numbly, it felt the morsel of crab, was prodded by bits of shell. Fazgood realized his face was locked, squinted and clenched. With effort, he swallowed.
Then rage swept over him.
He’s here! The man who ruined my life! I’d be happy if it weren’t for him!
Blind, he reached his right hand at the table. He pushed past a deputy’s shoulder. Unerringly, fingers seized a bumpy, round, hard object. With one stroke of his thumbnail, he scraped the wax seal from the tziembroask bottle.
He opened his eyes. His first sight was the Adactoid’s scarred, craggy face.
The deputy laughed. “We thought you had poisoned yourself!”
Fazgood’s mouth opened into a cry of anguish at the relish. It suppressed his desire to cry:
Mehzadapt! Here in front of me! Murderer! Traitor!
The Earl pressed his left hand past the massive shoulder and grabbed a cup from the corner of the table. The thumb eased the flat porcelain stop from the bottle. He poured himself a cup and drank. That fire warmed like a baked loaf of bread in autumn.
Fazgood picked up a napkin, wiped the water and sweat from his face, and blew his nose.
From the doorway, the russet-haired Inspector said, “What are you trying to do? You need to behave better!”
He poured and drank another cup. The warmth spread. He choked out a roar of hate. Covered his nose and blew again.
The warmth eased into his neck. His breath came slower.
Behave better? Oh Mehzadapt, you haven’t seen the first of how I will behave.
The Earl balled up the napkin and dabbed his brow to hide his recognition.
He coughed. “That, good citizens, was the Lava-God’s-Revenge.”
“Sniff this!” said the flushing man. “It could melt barnacles!”
The Adactoid took the bottle, tiny in his plate-wide hand, sniffed, then yelped.
The Earl slapped the cup onto the table. Behind the Earl, the heavy scout gave an odd squeak and backed away.
“Cornpudding,” warned the Inspector.
Fearful, a round, stinking deputy edged away.
Fazgood quickly poured another cup and offered to all. “Would you like a drink? Pardon my rudeness.”
The deputy shook his head, cheeks quivering.
“He don’t drink!” smirked the skinny one. “Gets all scared about it.”
The Inspector Mehzadapt pressed to the table and clapped the Adactoid on the shoulder. “I will take it from here, deputy. I will have that drink, Fazgood.”
The Earl wiped his eyes again and took another deep breath. “Bring a cup. Is there a cup?”
Another drink was poured. Mehzadapt’s mouth pulled as the tziembroask bit his stomach.
“Not bad,” he said. “But I prefer caml-zre.”
The Inspector noted the bottle, and saw the Birqmuir seal.
“Spend much time in the Empire, Fazgood?”
“Years ago, I did. Inspector.”
The Inspector noted the bold tone of voice and said, “Are you certain you do not recognize me?”
Careful, thought the Earl.
“If I seem changed, Inspector, try some relish and discover why.”
Mehzadapt looked back to the Booloob in the doorway. The hat rotated a little, another shrug.
The Inspector regarded the glittering bottle with a twitch of apprehension, then noted his surrounding deputies. “I will. Later.”
The deputies all snorted, but regarded the bottle with curiosity.
Fazgood said, “Pardon my taking food. I was famished, and I become faint in such times. Bread would serve me better. Would you like some bread?”
Without waiting for an answer, the Earl pulled a piece of bread and picked up the dull knife. In the ruckus, no one had noted it between the plate and the crab tureen. All started, but the Earl dipped the knife into the relish bottle and dabbed some small chunks. He exhaled through puffed lips, bit and chewed. He set the knife down.
“You will eat when I tell you to eat,” said the Inspector.
“Ah. Indeed. I’ll not be much help faint. And the bread helps much.”
“Set the bread down.”
The Earl took one more bite. Then, he pointedly set the bread on the plate.
Mehzadapt snarled. “Spit that out on the floor. Aim well.”
“No need to menace, Inspector,” Fazgood swallowed, with no more wince than when he drank the tziembroask. “I will tell you everything you want to know. You’re going to want this to be a secret, though. You know where I’ve been living.”
The Inspector noted that swallow. His face reddened. But his eyes betrayed his weighing of those last words.
“I do,” added Fazgood, “prefer the easy way. However, I run full gallop at the moneyed way. This is your city, and any such trails belong to you.”
The Earl waved and indicated all in the room.
“I say: this moneyed trail has room for many.”
Mehzadapt stared full into Fazgood’s eyes. The Earl looked back at him, hands folded.
“Tlezjoy, clear this end of the table. Then you and Cornpudding leave. Varalam and Reedtickle, sit at the far end of the table.”
The table was cleared, as it kept all sharp or potentially sharp objects from Fazgood’s grasp; but not the tziembroask bottle as the Earl made a point to seize it. The deputies redistributed.
The toolbag was placed on the floor.
“You have my attention,” said Mehzadapt.
The Earl poured another cup. “You wouldn’t believe the fluxion flowing in that keep, Inspector.”