That morning at the appointed time, Obdurate waited at the gate of the Terhane Residences. Even more than the previous morning, his nerves hummed, the sunlight seemed even brighter. The smell of the earth now seemed richer, fuller, even sweet. Passing the bramblerose bushes, he noticed the sparrows singing. He listened. He had heard sparrows all his life, his uncles’ garden was regularly pillaged by them, but was there an additional high peep at the end of their song? How was it that he never heard that tone before?
What miracles does Calzjha perform that my senses improve?
He turned back to the gate and was met by a messenger girl.
She walked to him, her gaze fixed and confident. His heart chilled.
“Are you Captain Childteacher?” she asked.
She offered a note with a flourish and trotted back down the Arterial.
The note was sealed with a College of Lotcasters glue-stamp. Obdurate opened it:
An emergency with the Ijkallan assembly has taken the General’s attention. The General is not available for sympatile for the remainder of this week.
It was signed by the Army lotcaster.
The captain slumped at the gate, staring at the letter.
He fought back a wave of relief at not having to confront the General, What does this mean? The General would go into hiding now? He would flee from negotiating when we have threatened everything?
This was not like the General; the Greatsergeant of yesterday’s communication wheedled and bullied as expected.
What does this mean?
Shoulders weighted with preoccupation, Obdurate trudged to the Arterial.
A rickshaw driver hailed him, but Obdurate shook his head, feeling quite unsettled.
* * *
After customary, the Earl hurried to the Plaza and his morning interrogation.
“Inspector, yesterday morning,” the Earl settled onto a stool. “began with a light knock on the door from the maid. A very light rapping. It woke me and the Foofaloof. I lay in bed for a moment, quietly cursing my life and begging the gods not to strike me ill, which is how I like to start my day. I got out of bed and chose my clothing. That would be a blue business suit, white muslin shirt and black cotton stockings. The water was especially cold in the shower, so much so that vital parts of my body drew close for warmth. I cursed once again for a decent heated Birqmuir bath. For breakfast, we ate gummy toast, yet again, and –“
“Get to the moments,” the Inspector said with a pronounced and fierce evenness, “where the Goodwife and that adjutant are near.”
The Earl soothed. “It was after my class. During the contemplations. I noticed their presence. The adjutant was on the side of the room with the outside wall, beside the window. The goodwife was across from him, at the inside wall. Both watched as we made our presenta –.”
The Inspector snapped. “Did you see them do anything of use?”
“Ah! Indeed!” Fazgood made to nod nervously. “The captain fidgeted from his left foot to his right foot. Then his left. Then he leaned upon the wall. Ah! Then I noted: the captain did scratch. He made to be sneaky about it but –“
The Inspector slammed the table. He pointed a finger in Fazgood’s face. “Do not trifle with me.”
“What do you want to know?” the Earl asked, eyes wide with exasperation. “I thought you a man for details.”
“The crime. The damned crime. What do you think I want to know?”
The Earl related the scene from the previous night in the Goodwife’s bedchamber, all that he saw and heard.
Merhiazadapt leaned back on his stool and considered. His fingers rubbed.
“Are you telling the truth?”
“Yes, I told you every word. Check my skin this afternoon. I will be clear of pox.”
“Why do they conspire in the bedchamber at night?”
“The goodwife has very little privacy.”
“Is she having an affair?”
“Yes,” Fazgood kept his gaze up.
“With which one?”
He said conclusively, “She is sharing passions with the captain.”
The Inspector said, “How kind of you to tell me.”
“You were interested in the money. What else they did was of little interest to you.”
“It interests me now.”
“Which is why,” whispered the Earl again. “I was giving you details before. I am not certain what detail interests you.”
“Relate to me any information about the conspiracy to extort of the General. That is my interest solely.” The Inspector spoke the syllables to seal the obligation.
“I will provide new information on the subject as it comes to me.”
The Inspector sighed and adjusted his hat on the table just so. “Does she let him out at the end of the night, or is the help in on this too?”
“The goodwife lets him out.”
“That Goodwife Greatsergeant seems a vicious sort. Squashing that wretch banker.”
Fazgood shrugged again, but held comment.
Asked the Inspector, “Does anyone else know about this conspiracy?”
“My reputation can take only so much ridicule. No.”
“You will not accept any specie delivered from them without my permission. You are obligated so.”
“I will be late for contemplations. The goodwife will be upset again.”
The Inspector laughed. “You are an insult to extortion. Go.”
Fazgood slipped out the curtain. The scout who was at the square yesterday, Bookwright, one who had eaten the relish, sprang away from the wall upon which he was leaning. His expression was sullen.
The Inspector snarled at the deputy. “Combative and lazy, are you? Have any more sharp words for me? What is with you surly wretches lately!”
Another scout surged up the stairs past the Earl, the huge adactoid. The scarred blue face was blank with enduring patience.
The Earl smiled to himself as he trotted down the stairs.
Hrikinik, you have made me a better bastard.
He slipped through the crowd of mourners and into the Plaza. Upon leaving the Headquarters, the Earl continued trotting to the far corner of the Plaza to a messenger booth.
He told the Exult hen dispatcher, “I would write a note to be delivered.”
She gestured to a standing table with pen, paper and inkstone. The Earl regretted that Warren was not available to help phrase a proper message, but there was not time. He wrote a message in the square Birqmuirish script:
To the Ambassador representing his Imperial Majesty:
From the Earl of Bywater, Fazgood:
I have found a method of locating valued persons even if the persons are concealed by incantations. Also, I know how to flam this method. I may be found at the Greatsergeant Keep under the name Er-humf-knert. Please make all visits secret.
Please remind the Emperor that I shot out like a flaming bullet of liberate phosphorus
The last was an observation that Blounbirq spoke about the Earl’s encounter with the Abomination, and was a comment only a handful in the world would know.
He sealed the message with a glue-stamp and handed it to a stern Exult fledgling. The progeny hopped and leapt through the crowd to the Arterial. Earl followed for two crowded, bustling streets to insure that no one followed the messenger. The sunlight deepened and all looked up. The pearly, filigreed face of the Cumulid slipped over the Arterial, heading north toward the Mercymortar neighborhood. More figures dangled banners from its snowy back.
The Earl turned back through the Plaza and continued down the Arterial to the Greatsergeant Keep. The contemplation had just begun. Fazgood found the Foofaloof, bade a good afternoon, and took the offered Brumpfbasket.
Warren peeked. [Obdurate says that the General was not present for the sympatile. He was told the General would not be available until late this week.]
Fazgood’s eyes widened.
[My liege, I am sure this is but an insig…. Why are you smiling?]
Indeed the Earl smiled. Despite their circumstances close to curious citizens, the Earl had to stretch his mouth and tilt his head back so as to feign a yawn. He took a breath and brought his head back down, and all trace of the smile was gone.
The Earl’s eyes still twinkled with mirth. [There is something in the air at a Rashic contemplation! I have just had an idea! The General has very limited options. I would tell you, but I wish assurances. Tell Respiration to tell Obdurate to gather all the important information on the General.]
[Information? Like what?]
[Like his birthdate, important moments in his life, names and the like. Obdurate is to perform his little numerical trick with it.]
[Ah! But, my liege, how will knowing the general’s location help us? We know he is in the Ijkallas.]
[It is of greatest importance. Obdurate must present the result of his sums when we meet this evening.]
[This evening? That will not leave him much time.]
[Please extend the Earl’s apologies.]
I will harness this young, lucky dolt and have him work to my favor for once.
He looked to the fidgeting young man. Despite his unease, in the presence of Respiration, exchanging taps on the forearm with the Foofaloof, he did have a glow about him.
Fazgood grumbled and amended, Young, lucky, tuned-true, satisfied dolt.
* * *
Varalam the grim deputy looked ridiculous on a stool. The Inspector insisted that all sat as they reported; it was time-honored tradition.
The Adactoid squirmed in discomfort. “It is as you said: in the morning, the captain went to the Terhane Residences. He met with a messenger, and received some sort of note at the gate. I stayed within sight of him.”
The captain sympatiles with General Greatsergeant. Is it a betrayal?
“How did our captain seem as he read?”
“He was dumbfounded enough for ten pathetics.”
General Greatsergeant is not taking extortion well. He is probably squawking like the mighty usually do: “I will not pay a dahbe to you, vermin-herd!” In the end, they all beg to pay every dahbe they have.
But the note could not have been explicit: a lotcaster could not aid Greatsergeant in low treason and keep the spirits’ trust.
He wondered at many permutations.
Does the General know this captain and his wife are lovers? I doubt it.
The Inspector tapped his fingertips together.
That captain is in a bit of a pinch. He would know the banker, and the accounts, and the remaining details. It would pay just to put a scare in him. But if he tells what he knows, what good is he? He would make a suitable warning for the others.
“You have skulkers following all of them?”
The deputy said, “Since you told me to this morning, Inspector. The Goodwife does her civic errands to hospitals and the like in the morning, then has administrators come for contemplation. The Foofaloof partner goes to customary, and shops enough for five people. The captain is at the Army Headquarters at this moment, and he lives in the barracks. He is an odd one, so they say.”
“Keep a watch on the barracks. I want to meet the captain, and he will be too suspicious and too smart to trick. When you see a chance, seize him. When you have him, bring him to the bathhouse.”
The Inspector rotated his hat on the table just so. “Have Cornpudding accompany you. After our captain testifies to the Inspector’s satisfaction, Cornpudding may see the captain home.”
* * *
Greennight seeped between the curtains. Across the bedroom, the dark was broken by the glows of yellow candylanterns; Respirations latest idea was to have the glowing, gemlike confections in dishes as light. Obdurate sat upon the bed, downcast. Respiration sat beside him, hugging his arm to console him.
The adjutant said, “I cannot find a useful solution. Any location I determine is not in the Ijakllas at all. It is along a swath of the south Blaphanic Ocean. It is nothing but sea; there are no islands anywhere in that area.”
The Earl walked to the window. “Where in the Blaphanic?”
So nice to be able to stretch out and conspire freely again!
“Just north of the equator. The swath begins just east of the Isthmus of Aiomb. It is twelve-hundred ri east of the Ijkallas, with empty ocean between there and the Kingdom. Twelve-hundred ri off target! And I have no idea where the equations are wrong!”
“That would be another two-thousands away as well,” Fazgood muttered.
Respiration said, “Perhaps not enough information was gathered. I can search for documents.”
“That would account for unplottable results. But all of these sums are convertible into demarcations. I used the Grand Demarked Meridians map at the lotcaster’s desk work to do the calculations. But they are consistently several hundred ri east of the Ijkallas.”
The Earl peered out the heavy drapes into greennight. “When did you perform these equations?”
“I tried the latest at twentieth hour.”
“Four hours ago. Do you have any sort of map?”
“I have my notes.”
They spread these papers upon the mattress. On one brown paper, Obdurate had sketched a small map of the hemisphere along with meridians. In the upper right of the map, the nipple of the Quand Peninsula poked west from the chest of the Ksam continent.
At center of the map, a reasonable approximation of the squished duck shape of the Naltna continents. At the far side of the squish, which was the Aiombian Isthmus, were the archipelagos of Ijkalla. To the east of that Aiombian squish were many tiny marks of differing shapes: crosses, dots, converging crescents, various shaped squares. The marks became more unusual (was that last a crab-shape?) the farther east they lay.
“I was more frustrated with every new set of coordinates,” explained the captain. “Here is the legend.”
On this scrap of paper was a list of his attempts in sequence, noted by time with its corresponding mark-shape on the map.
The Earl asked, “That is a crab at half-past-seventeen.”
“I was becoming giddy with desperation.”
The goodwife pointed. “And this one at eighteen-fifty is to the east of it? By how many ri?”
“Over one-hundred ri. Not that it matters! How could he travel over twelve-hundred ri in a day?”
Calzjha scratched an itch on her breast, which itched from being bound. “The Adanikarese would dreamwalk.”
“This method should determine his physical location,” said Obdurate, “and the Concord prohibits the living from dreamwalking. I am sorry, Fazgood. I do not know what is wrong.”
The Earl continued peering out of the window. The green light glittered in his unblinking eyes. “Do not fret about it. Tomorrow I will tell you about the next step in the plan.”
Warren and he took their leave.
Later, in his chamber, as Warren dozed on his bundle, Calzjha slipped in. The Earl was throwing a set of grooming tools. Rattle, shake, fling! A cuticle knife thumped into the rolled center of a cloth bundle.
The Earl looked up. “You are back much too soon. Do they need anything?”
Calzjha smiled. “They felt they would do better without me this evening.”
“Is that good?”
“Yes. Their posture and breathing are so much improved, have you seen? Obdurate says he can hear and smell more clearly. Respiration says food tastes better, and that she feels more vital. The dialogue in contemplations has been much more lively.”
She looked to the Earl. “Would you care for –“
“No. I prefer my nerves jumbled.”
Rattle, shake, fling. A blade to pare bunions.
“But,” she said, shaking her head, “Respiration and Obdurate have gained bliss –“
“We are surrounded by all four flavors of enemy. How would ‘bliss’ work for me? If you have some disquiet you could give me, I am stockpiling it.”
Calzjha weighed his words. “Is everything going to your plan?”
“It becomes interesting tomorrow.”
Thump went a silver skin file.
* * *
Obdurate eased the secret door closed. Through the memory of his senses, he stepped around the black lacquered box without touching it. The thought flitted through his mind another uncounted time: take the box and sink it, sink it in the ocean. But that would only delay the inevitable of it rotting open, the Ocean Mother taking note of it and recoiling in horror as the mask declaimed its pedigree and ownership.
How was the Earl to relieve us of this? How would he save the Kingdom? He must be lying. But to what advantage? He is a decent man in the book, that is written most assuredly, but he’s also fond of betrayal.
The captain slipped within the ladrail and placed his feet and hands within its holds. He climbed down to the bottom of the shaft. He stepped onto the floor and shifted his weight to his toes. The counterweighted floor eased open.
The smell of water swept up, then a sulphurous stink.
Obdurate grimaced. This is much worse use than normal, and he began to climb down.
Eight holds then a drop. One-two-three-four-five –
“– deeper in.”
Adrenaline jolted the captain’s limbs. He fumbled to keep a grip.
The voice came from the darkness below him. Below him! There was perhaps a man’s height between the drop and the sewer floor. The captain tried to look down, but the narrowness of the shaft kept him from seeing below. He listened.
He knew the shaft’s opening to the sewer was hidden in plain sight: the edge of the sewer ceilings had square openings for drains every thirty-paces. The counterweighted floor opened to a storm drain, which had further rungs to climb down.
From his reading of ‘The Nimblest Man’, and through conversations with the Earl, Obdurate knew to keep quiet and be very patient.
He held the cool gritty stone, smelled his sour sweat in his cotton jacket, and counted to one hundred. Nothing.
I know I heard something. I know I heard a male human voice say something. Would Public Works be checking drainage this time of night?
That could be; when he had first been shown this secret by Respiration, he had done some subtle asking of his acquaintances at Public Works. The drains here were reliable, and only needed cleaning twice yearly. Educated streams of water flushed away clogs, which meant no people were necessary. Perhaps there was an accident or emergency.
He could climb back up to the secret room and wait. But it was becoming early morning, and he had to get back to the barracks.
He hung in darkness.
The sewer stank, especially in the summer. But the stench was especially raw this evening.
He held his breath and counted again. Nothing.
Perhaps they are gone. If I hadn’t imagined it after all.
He climbed down, slowly down the remaining holds until his right foot hanged from beyond the last. He dropped with a splish!
He turned and walked to the canal. A huge being stood in the opening, all in shadow. A plughat was on its head.
From behind the captain echoed a labored breath, then: “Where did he come from?”
“Consider the color of his coat,” remarked a second voice. “Perhaps someone’s got a bleeding pile.”
The shadow turned around. The gray face shone in the dark.
“Citizen Captain,” the figure rumbled. “If you are scat, then we are your Public Works.”
The three converged. The stench smothered.