In the morning at the barracks, Obdurate awoke early in a wonderful languor. His exercise in the yard was sharp yet relaxed. The adjutant charged to work. His first task was to thrust a note to a messenger and commanded it go to the Terhane Residences.
- A confidential message must be sent to General Greatsergeant immediately. I am sole entrusted with its conveyance. Also, are lotcasters now allowed to leave the residences for job-related tasks? I would not ask, but I have from a reliable source that the Scout Brigade lotcaster was seen last night in the Foreign Due.
He knew response would be swift. Obdurate knew his reputation: Even-tempered, so serious Army Adjutant-Captain Obdurate Childteacher never asked for help and never turned away someone in need. A pleasant, quiet, serious sort with his head always over his desk, but always forgiving of honest error. The army representatives in the College would believe him without question, and scramble to inquire.
The answer returned by the same messenger child; the girl told him an appointment time for a sympatile session at mid-day, and a polite statement that the lotcasters were still restricted.
He stepped from his office and caught a rickshaw to the Plaza. The jingle of a jezr-ji banner caused him to peer, but the lotcaster ran on the far side of the street in the opposite direction, red ribbons streaming far away. Obdurate’s mind wandered to the night before. His newly-tuned nerves kept doubt far from his heart.
At a quarter-hour before the session, he arrived at the courtyard in front of the Terhane Residences. The first scattering of tiny leaves gusted across the small, rose-quartz plaza. Over the wall to his left the bowl of the great Royal Citadel, to his right the simple, rippled roofs of the quarters housing foreign ambassadors; Birqmuir’s ambassador resided in the large ivy-covered one in the center. Beyond those, fat in the striated sky, the cumuloid glode, pearly fins open and sphincter-funnels barely visible in the billows of cloud-like disguise.
Within the courtyard, the army lotcaster stood waiting, her eyes distant and breathing deep, already preparing the trance to facilitate communication. The thin, lacquered case of a portable sympatile table slung over her right shoulder. Obdurate and the lotcaster nodded to each other, and they waited until the proper moment, when the lotcaster felt moved to begin.
In smooth, sharp movements, the sides of the case detached lengthwise and legs dropped into place to create seats. The middle of the case was turned sideways, and legs dropped to form a central table.
A frame as for a puppet theater was folded up at mid-table and snapped into dovetailed slots. One side of the partitioned table-top slid away to reveal the layer of white inscribed in black with letters of the Rahsic Unified alphabet and simple words; this was common to all sympatile. This table had a sympathetic twin; the same tree supplied the wood for both, the same vein of copper supplied the metal, the shape and arrangement of the letters and words was unique to the two sets. The twin table accompanied the General wherever he shipped, and behind which the General sat at that moment.
The table cover slipped upright into the mid-table frame to form a partition, leaving a thin gap at its bottom. Obdurate sat at the side with the white tiles. The lotcaster sat at the opposite side, her gaze hidden from the messages to be conveyed in the tray of tiles.
The two sat. She pushed a thin copper rod under the partition. The rod was tipped with a hoop of red glass. The hoop stopped in the blank space at the center of the words and letters. Obdurate heard the lotcaster humming a deep and sonorous tune, the tone descending lower and lower, until her voice began to croak.
Obdurate’s seat tingled, as if someone else was infringing upon him to move over.
The lotcaster rapped the tray.
Obdurate drew his finger upon the hoop and guided it to the letters to spell. The tiny hexagons and triangles flipped along his finger’s path, leaving a trail of red. He knew at that moment, weeks away by sail, the General sat at the twin of this sympatile device, and watched as letters traced across the twin’s face.
Obdurate spelled “Childteacher.” He tapped the frame to signify his completion.
The hoop slid across and spelled in bold, strong strokes. “Greatsergeant.”
The adjutant gritted his teeth. A chill drifted up his veins. He wrote:
The hoop shifted, and within the slow, steady red hoop. “Impossible.”
His heart pounded. “It is certain.”
The conversation proceeded:
“Man says to be from Ijkalla. Heard man say he is magician.”
Cold panic sluice through Obdurate’s stomach.
“Perhaps I am wrong,” the adjutant wrote, aware of his weakening, wanting all of this to be over, to be in his office coordinating numbers, wiser and wiling to live a life of routine lunches and shrugs.
The hoop remained still. The General’s presence burned in the air, as if he stood over Obdurate’s shoulder. When Obdurate blinked, he saw Greatsergeant’s thick-browed and piercing eyes, his engraved smile. The adjutant felt the slamming of the General’s shoulder claps. These impressions were part of working with the sympatile; some eight weeks voyage away, approximately south-by-southwest, the General could sense Obdurate’s presence.
In slow and deliberate letters, came this: “There is more. Tell.”
What am I to do? What did the Earl say to do?
“Admit truth to hide a lie.” How?
He remembered the night before, watching naked, newly-breasted Calzjha kneading Respiration’s feet.
The lie seized him, and Obdurate wrote. “Man is not from Ijkalla. Mysterious. Claims to be magician. There is affection.”
Oddly, relief spilled over him. Respiration and Calzjha were fond of each other, even when a man Calzjha chatted with Respiration as if they were fellow students of a esoteric science. And he did know that Calzjha was as not from Ijkalla, to say nothing of having ri of exotica within.
“Who of all thinks as you?” wrote the General.
“All admire your wife. I could tell none.”
Anger flashed at the familiar contempt. His finger jabbed the hoop:
“More. Heard stranger tell wife he will break curse on keep.”
As soon as he wrote the words, he felt sweat prickle like hot needles on his brow and limbs.
Steady sliding: “What does he mean?”
Throw ignorance and questions.
“I do not know.”
The heat became a boiling. Obdurate suspected, strangely, that the heat was not his own.
Is the General…afraid?
The adjutant felt a shift in the General; a withdrawing into contemplation. Obdurate resisted a rising hope.
A lighter touch to the hoop now: “Tell her of my regard. Bring her tomorrow so that we may speak. The same time. Done.”
It took all of Obdurate’s will to keep his fear at bay. “I will. Done.”
Obdurate made arrangement with the lotcaster for another session the next day. He bade good-to-all and departed, heavy with worry.
How am I to have Respiration subjected to this? What are we going to do?
What spying could the General receive to determine my lies? Messages by ship would take weeks to be received. A magician or Cumuloid could compel a breeze to take a message, but that would take days to get to the Ijkallas. Would the General trust a magician to send a risky message through the spirits?
At the end of the hall, before the sunlit glass of the door, he paused and took a breath. He walked through the courtyard, still bent with thought.
Obdurate considered. No. I do not think the General would delegate the most vital task of his life. Nor would he risk exposure by entrusting himself under the scrutiny of a lotcaster or magician. They could uncover the deeper secret, and he knows that.
He looks to worm the truth from his wife! Find inconsistencies in our stories!
He walked out the rosebrick and quartz gate and down the latticed brickwork walk to the Aortid Boulevard.
A thought! The General could send a dispatch from the Ijkallas for public consumption, in seeming innocence, that would put to a lie all of the Earl’s fancies of Ijkalla (the Foofaloof? What sort of name is that?).
But…an exposed and imprisoned Foofaloof might tell of the Greatsergeant curse to any who would listen.
The General is stalemated.
This realization gave cause for a moment’s relief. At least the next few days were safe. His insides still felt like ice.
Is this how the Mad Earl spends his life? Delays and respites? The constant spinning of confusions? A few days’ safety per effort? The book says as much.
He felt a fool for even thinking it, but he had to: The book said nothing about being nauseous.
* * *
The thick velvet drape pulled back and Deputy Tlezjoy leaned his head into the alcove. “Inspector, someone managed to drag their gritty skin in to see you.”
The Inspector looked up from his dictation, and glared at the familiarity. “Bring him.”
Mehzadapt waved the clerk out of the alcove. The man scurried out as Fazgood slipped in, holding his hat and shoulders hunched. The Earl’s neck and cheeks had the slightest gray dinge; the beginning of Bungler Pox, the physical ruin resulting from disobeying an Obligation.
“Sit,” said the Inspector. “Let’s see your hands.”
Fazgood put his hat on the table and held out his hands palm down. Red blemishes spidered under his skin, two on the back of his right hand, one on the back of his left.
Mehzadapt slapped Fazgood across the face.
The Earl cried out and held his cheek.
A being who is struck shows many things; dismay, then whatever rage or fear is in his heart. The Inspector saw surprise, then a white-hot rage, which was quickly – expertly – caught. The Earl’s eyes showed a whipped dog biding his time, the lesser in life’s circumstance, waiting for a back to turn.
Mehzadapt pointed. “That is going to bruise more than a little, because you decided to have will.”
“What was I to do?” the Earl muttered. “The paragon was there! Am I to refuse a paragon in the middle of the Malibar Ferry?”
“You would sneak from the keep, and stay to my demand, Fazgood.”
Then the Inspector took out a handkerchief and made a show of wiping his hand. “You have dissembled from the Ijkallas to Harmonium. According to some book, you steal entire castles or some such. Yet your nerves go cold on that dock. Perhaps I should just throw you to the police.”
“You said we had struck a deal!”
“Deal? I can cancel the terms anytime I see fit.”
“That would repay you poorly. At this moment, all the paragon and the captain thinks is that I went whoring. If I have deputies around me, Goodwife Greatsergeant will know something is happening. They may do something hasty. That is why I went with them.”
“Now you answer that you look after my interests!” Mehzadapt sneered. “Where could the goodwife and captain hide?”
Fazgood leaned close. “They could themselves go to the police and hope for mercy. That would leave me and that fool I am teamed with on the Royal Road.”
And me with nothing, and ill-will for not turning them in last night. No magnateship, and an investigation from the inspectors.
He put away his handkerchief, his brow tight with contemplation. “So where lay their natures?”
“I spent half the night soothing them, so that they did not think you were on to them.”
“So you did not tell them anything of our meeting.”
“I told the Goodwife that scouts do not like citizen aspirants to gamble in the Foreign Due. She knows I am hard up for money, so she believed me. It was all I could do to assure her. She and the adjutant are gathering money to send us on our way.”
“Did you say anything of the deputies you saw in the Bellflowers? Did you describe any of them to the paragon?”
The Earl looked confused. “I told her that your deputies cornered me and you much abused me. Was I wrong?”
The Inspector’s brow tightened again, He probably let slip about Reedtickle.
“How much money?”
Fazgood told him a figure.
“That is cheap.”
“If you make it too dear, they go looking for help.”
Mehzadapt shook his head. “You have such leverage on them. Why not tell Goodwife Greatsergeant ‘shut up’ and ‘I’m for whores?’”
“I’m going to stand on a public dock and refuse a paragon? She hosts contemplations, and I have to go to customary. I can’t run about doing anything I like. I have to play it out within my role.”
“Yes, your role. What of your ‘foofaloof’?”
“The Foofaloof is enjoying being in charge. I do not trust the Foofaloof.”
The Inspector chuckled. “You always did follow heedlessly as a child. Do you remember?”
The Earl stilled, and became watchful.
“I remember faces,” Fazgood said. “Some names and streets. Beyond that, I lived a life.”
“What a life you have lived that you forget how your mentors died, Earl Fazgood.”
“I remember this city killed them over some quarrel. I remember that I am forever an exile… That is memory enough.”
Mehzadapt examined the bitterness in Fazgood’s voice, and how the Earl caught himself before he became too talkative. Better change the subject.
The Inspector clapped his meaty hands together. “You met our lotcaster. The Booloob who gave your lungs fits? I had a long session with Reedtickle last night. Not one aspect of your tale could be confirmed by lotcasting.”
Tlezjoy parted the drape. Fazgood became wary, the Inspector noted.
Mehzadapt said, “Tell Inspector Akekek that I have our visitor.”
After Tlezjoy departed, Mehzadapt instructed the Earl: “You will relate to Inspector Akekek everything you have told me. You will not tell any scout the names of your conspirators.”
The Inspector spoke the few words necessary to seal the commands and bind them to Fazgood’s fate.
Tlezjoy pushed aside the drape to allow Inspector Akekek her entrance. No introductions were made.
Akekek kept her plughat on her sleek brown crest. “Inform me.”
Mehzadapt set aside her deliberate rudeness. “I referred to an investigation last night. This investigation is delicate. The subject of the investigation concerns embezzlement in the military. Its conspiracy reaches to the highest ranks. I will not discuss the details until all parties are leveraged, and this man is obligated to me not to reveal details. When the conspirators are under control of the Brigades, you will know all.”
Fazgood related the tale told of the previous evening, omitting names, keeping details vague. He omitted Calzjha completely.
Akekek clucked deep in her throat. “The military, you say?”
“Yes, Inspector,” said Fazgood.
Mehzadapt flicked a finger. “Wait down the hall at the corner.”
Fazgood stepped backward out of the alcove and dropped the velvet back into place.
Akekek looked to Mehzadapt. Her hackles rose.
“What is this theater?” she sneered. “I saw his skin: this man is grit and spots. He will say anything you demand.”
Mehzadapt shrugged. “Believe him or do not believe him. All I ask is the full ten days. I will honor all who supported my investigation.”
“The ten days are now six days, Mehzadapt.”
“Six days, yes. Stop any hasty vote that Inspector Mikdoktik demands, and I will insure that you share in the bounty of this haul.”
“What would you with this ‘haul’? It is high treason to extort the army exchequer for a percentage of their embezzlement.”
“I would leverage any minor conspirators for favor in the future; I would insure they were kept from being revealed. The more impressive conspirators I would give the courts.”
The Exult nodded. “How impressive would those ones be?”
“Inspector, your fledglings have heard of them.”
Akekek assessed Mehzadapt’s confident demeanor.
She giggled. “I agree. I invest six days’ patience into this ‘haul’ of yours.”
“There is a haul. It will be had.”
The Exult took her leave. Deputy Tlezjoy peeked in and Merhizadapt crooked a finger to have Fazgood sent in.
The Earl entered and sat. The cramped alcove forced him close to Mehzadapt; there was a tension in Fazgood’s seating as he expected another slap. The purpling bruise was rising on his cheek in front of his left ear. The Inspector slapped his arm around the Earl’s shoulders.
Mehzadapt growled. “There is some discord in Greatsergeant Keep. Last night, the lotcaster discerned that much. And that you and the goodwife and the soldier are conspiring. You have something very important over the General. But no money has changed hands.
“And you have never, ever stepped foot on the Ijkallas. You should explain why the lotcaster found this to be so.”
The Earl’s countenance became grim. He wiped a hand before his face, and gazed at the gray flakes.
He said, “The General leveraged his Army magician to conceal my partner and I from discernment. You know they conceal the movements of whole fleets from magical discernment. To conceal two people is nothing.”
“Ah,” said the Inspector. “But why?”
“We are on the run from the Adanikarese. As long as we stayed by the General, the Adanikarese couldn’t find us.”
The Inspector raised an eyebrow. “So you are aiding high treason, for leveraging the magician.”
“Yes-s-s-s,” Fazgood stared at the table.
Mehzadapt sneered. “You are no longer required to stay with the deputies. Check in with me every six hours. At night, do so by reporting to whoever of my deputies is in Lanthornmount Square.
“Two more items,” said the Inspector. “First: walk the length of the Triumph. Complete the task before tonight’s twentieth hour. Do so without interruption or pause for rest. Do so without aid from any person or device. When your legs ache, remember I can have you do worse. Go.”
He drove home the point by speaking the enchantment into the Earl’s ear. Fazgood gritted his teeth, but said nothing.
The Inspector shoved. “Get out of here. You smell like ashes.”
Tlezjoy had heard, and parted the drape with a vulpine smile. “There is not enough water to wash the Bungler away. Off with you.”
The Earl rose, so angry that he panted. “The second item. What is the second item?”
“You would do best to avoid those fellows charging around with those red and yellow banners. Tell your co-conspirators the same.”
“What?” Fazgood’s eyes seemed to search for reason. “Why?”
“Just do so. That is an order, and you are obligated.”
The Inspector spoke the few words necessary to seal the commands upon Fazgood.
Under his Obligation, Fazgood stalked away.
The deputy jibed. “Rattle those bones quick! You’ll be pink again by sun-up!”
The Inspector shook his head. The Fiery Comet! The Mad Earl! Could he be truly this pathetic? If he falls so easily to me, why should I need Reedtickle!