13 08 2014

The second bullet strike swallowed the cries of the fight. It was a buzzing that shook the floor beneath Fazgood’s shoes.

The buzzing! If I recall the Three Cities, that bullet will reduce its target into its granular essence. The General will shoot that near the door, so he can enter easier.

But it was in the middle of a wall, near the floor, where the stone had become yellow and glistening, and trickled. A hysterical whine pierced the shouting.

Fluxion! Were any touching that wall when it struck?

Varalam and Calzhja fought with deputies charging up the stairs. One who staggered up was a small, sharp man, who wailed at the white, flaking sculptures at the ends of his arms, mashed together in disbelief.

No more casual bashing for Tlezjoy, recognized the Earl, though he will have no worries about how to salt his soup.

Fazgood looked again at that trickling span on the wall where the bullet struck.

Sand will not hold the weight of the stone above!

There was a wink of billowing spray before blocks scraped together and tumbled into the anteroom. That wall collapsed and deputies sprang away.

Greatsergeant is barely bothering with the pretense of rescue. He will order this keep brought to rubble, kill us all, secure the mask, and endure the outcome.

I thought I would have to set the place on fire myself, but if the General wants to help, let him. Seems I had those combustibles cast about for no reason.

On the landing, Obdurate searched for an opening; a knife plucked from the floor gleamed in his hand, his eyes gleaming wet with fear and passion. He slashed at a human deputy, who slashed back with a sharp length of ablewood. The soldier buried the knife in the deputy’s thick chest and with a sick grimace pushed the deputy back down the stairs.

The Earl cast his mind to Warren: [Has the Dropsy come through the passage yet, squire?]

[I have smelt its sulfur since before the activated bullet, my liege!]

[Do not worry about this assault. The brigades will need some new deputies, but the keep may hold for hours yet.]

[Do you see? The Dropsy comes!]

Through Warren’s eyes, from Warren’s hiding spot beside the bedstead, the Earl saw the still-opened lacquered door lit from the flickering varicolored lights within the secret room. A darkness swelled from the gap. It probed the air, swaying back and forth like a whisker-stubbled tongue.

Fazgood felt a shove, and his concentration was broken. The Inspector’s hot breath was in his face.

“What is at you?” said the man. “This is no time for shock!”

The Earl looked into those panicked eyes and laughed. “’Shock!’ Show me something to be shocked about.”

He bent to the bottom of the wall and snatched up — one-two-three — three paring knives. To his right was the balcony rail overlooking the anteroom. Before him was Varalam snarling in front of the steps leading up.

At the side of the landing beside the rail, Calzhja struggled with two deputies. Calzhja ducked a skullwarmer swung by tall Bookwright, and thrust Hand Position Three into the man’s armpit. The deputy yelped and collapsed.

A flapping! A Exult with plughat and magnate’s colors lit on the rail!

The Earl swore and shoved the Inspector before the Exult’s face! Hissing, the tottering deputy tried to claw around his superior. Mehzadapt screamed and squirmed, talons and toothy beak flailing past his cheeks and ears. The Earl seized the hair on the back of the Inspector’s head and butted the Exult. It pinwheeled back into the anteroom.

The Earl pulled and tripped the Inspector to the floor. “Stay down, you!”

Fazgood looked and saw the captain was beside the gate latch and winch, as he had been earlier instructed. The Earl strode to the top of the stairs.

Varalam carried a squirming junior deputy by the back of his coat and flung him down the stairs. The Earl crouched down below the rail.

“Pull now, Respiration!” yelled the Earl in Adanikarese. “All should please cringe!”

Calzhja and Obdurate ducked to the floor. Respiration pulled down the release latch.

Oiled gears and chains rattled. The metal gate swung crashing down upon the stone parapet. It caught Varalam at the back of the head and sent him sprawling down the steps. A grate slid down and struck the stone floor with a deafening clang!

On the stone floor Mehzadapt lay, scuffed and bewildered.

An odd thought struck the Fazgood: To think if I stayed with the scouts, or if the circles had succeeded, I could have ended up like him! A pathetic!

He cast the thought aside and contacted Warren, [Squire, I pray you are not eaten!]

[Ha! Yes! You would know if I had been, but this creature is unsettling and revolting and it is creeping across the ceiling in a most unsettling and revolting way and I –]

[Has it seen or smelled you?]

[It does not behave as such because it just icks along very revoltingly to the door and I do hope you will be arriving soon though please be careful and –]

[It is as confused as the rest of the deputies. More so!]

The Earl looked to the landing. The air tingled. His hair bristled.

He announced in a sing-song cheer: “Lightning!”

The bolt can only strike the walls, and make a lot of noise.

He covered his ears and stepped away from the metal gates.

A blue flash from under the keep door. All sound seemed sucked away.

Thunder slapped the ears and slammed the air.

He peered through the bars and saw the deputies reeling. Now the cries were broad and lowing, as the deputies could not hear themselves or each other. Somewhere, someone made nerve-shriveling shrieks.

That goes well. And I should put that screaming fellow on the payroll.

Obdurate and Respiration clung to each other exhausted and shaking.

Calzhja picked herself up from the floor laughing, eyes glittering. “ The citizens… told me…this is a peaceful city!”

Fazgood shouted. “I thought Greatsergeant would have evacuated the square before firing or using lightning! My apologies!”

Calzhja leaned upon the Earl. “You are apologizing? What a unique evening!”

Heart thumping at the weight and smell of her, despite himself, the Earl brushed at a bruise under her eye. Her gaze followed his hand.

[My liege!]

“Yes!” called the Earl and he dropped Calzhja , who landed upon her hip.

[It seems to know the intention of the assault! It has icked its way out into the hallway. I can still smell it, so the all-disgusting is just outside the door!]

[Follow it!]


Ignoring Calzhja’s glare and feeling a profound sense of relief, he looked over the railing. In the anteroom, the bottom of the keep door was twisted and blackened. Still, it held.

From that gap came Greatsergeant’s call: “Surrender, scouts! Surrender, Earl Fazgood!”

Another bullet thundered! A roar of a rushing river filled with banging porcelain.


A cloud of dust billowed through the windows. Three paces worth of the wall facing the Square shattered into white, tinkling, brittle shards! The ceiling nearest the wall dropped bricks, and overhead a beam snapped.

Mehzadapt reached for the rail and pulled himself up, gasping.

Fazgood went to the lovers on the stairs and said. “Go to the common room. Listen close. If the keep door is opened, call upstairs. Wait for Warren to arrive or my call to go upstairs. Stay away from the windows! Greatsergeant wants to kill us all!”

Respiration trembled. “Can we not leave now? Why can we not leave now?”

“There is a creature in your room. I must draw it out.”

Obdurate swallowed. “It is that thing when, when –“

“The creature we encountered when we found you is upstairs. I will draw it out. Either Warren or I will come to get you.”

Calzhja hissed. “I will not let you risk yourself –“

“You will not argue! It has to be led away! No one else can do it!”

“But I am your bodyguard.”

“Ah! Today you are my bodyguard! Today I need no guard. Respiration and Obdurate do. Keep a fire handy near your door. The creature will respect that.”

He led the three to the common room. Beside the door, he stooped and picked up a jug shaped as a rosebush by its neck and shook it. Fazgood listened to the comfortable deep slosh.

As the trapped deputies howled and cursed, the Earl walked back to the Inspector leaning upon the iron bars.

Mehzadapt called down to his injured followers. “You will hold the wall! You will make your ancestors proud! I will gain the evidence and the general will be prosecuted!”

“Open that portcullis, inspector!” called Varalam. “We have no chance against those weapons! We can guard as well behind that gate!”

“You will hold the wall!”

The others wailed. “That Cumulid holds above us! They ready another bullet! Please, Inspector!”

Through the smoke and fear, said the Earl with enthusiasm. “Deputies! Citizens! Please! This is not the first time your Inspector has been trapped by the army. He got out just fine. I am certain he will guide you well.”

Mehzadapt gasped at the more overt accusation and looked to the Earl. Downstairs, the cries turned to silent puzzling.

“What does he mean, Inspector? When was this?” called a deputy.

The Earl seized the Inspector’s arm, the jug in his other hand. “Follow, Inspector. We go to your evidence.”

“Yes!” stammered Mehzadapt. “Note, scouts, I go to the evidence! The General will pay for your injuries! He will pay!”

“We do not have much time. Hurry!”

Fazgood glanced back at the floor, and how the Inspector laid his blazer out, arms out and neck towards their destination, so that the Dropsy may know their location.

He led the Inspector to the guest room.

More shouts from downstairs: arguments; Varalam calling for the Inspector; and the one useful deputy shrieked in a most demoralizing way.

What a feeble lot! Back at the Earldom, my lot did not start shrieking until after the frontal assault!

The guest room had been emptied. The rolls of rich cloth had been placed downstairs. The bottles of perfumes and unguents had been poured out in the anteroom. The bottle of relish was in Fazgood’s blazer pocket.

Around the bed rest the three black wooden secretaries.

Fazgood went to the window. He could not see the mural from this side, but the police had pushed the crowd to shelter along the far buildings.

[Warren, are you following the Dropsy?]

[Yes. It makes a sick, sticky sound as it crawls along.]

The Earl perceived what Warren sensed. The Dropsy flowed along the ceiling around the corner and down the stairs. Its stench was like close rot, and its movements crackled like the sound of a bloody fist opening.

[When it approaches the guest room, get Calzhja and the others from the common room and take them upstairs.]

[But my liege, what of you?]

[I will be ready for –]

“What do you see?” the Inspector pressed.

People in the crowd pointed at their window. Soldiers scuttled across the square and peered.

Bellowed the Earl. “General Greatsergeant! General Greatsergeant!”

Mehzadapt started at the thunderous volume of the small man’s voice. In the square, in a knot of soldiers, a tall man with a high forehead directed the other soldiers’ attention.

“General Greatsergeant! Allow your wife and captain safe leave! Have compassion!”

The megaphone raised: “You seize them and call me for compassion!”

Hands trembling, Mehzadapt pulled the Earl away. “Stop! Stop! They will fire again! Where is the evidence?”

The bottle sloshed in the Earl’s hand as he pointed. “In one of those secretaries. I do not know which. Greatsergeant! You are foulness and we have your secret!”

A cry escaped Mehzadapt’s lips. He fumbled at a secretary and opened it.

Within was a bundled swatch of diaphene cloth, radiant like crumpled mother-of-pearl. The Inspector clawed at it. Within its folds, nothing.

Mehzadapt threw the box aside and clambered to seize another. He tore open the folds. Empty.

A stink of rotten eggs rose in the room.

Fazgood set the bottle beside the bed. His fingers tightened on the last box.

Now you decide not to shoot, Greatsergeant, you dawdling wretch!

Scrabbling fingers unfolded. Nothing.

A faint crackling permeated the room.

The Inspector saw what the Earl held close. “Give me that box!”

“Just take it,” Fazgood said slyly.

Eyes squinting, Merhizadapt sensed betrayal. “No! You! You open it!”

The Earl made himself brighten. “Very well!”

“No!” snarled the Inspector. “Give it to me!”

The Earl opened. Within the mask laid, copper-flecks sparkling. The Earl seized it by its edges and picked it up.

“This is the device. Do you want it?”

“Give it to me!”

The Earl flung the mask to the wall facing the Square.

Mehzadapt scrambled after it. The Earl sprang across to the door.

“How does it work?” asked the Inspector.

“You just put it on. Wait!”

“A sap then, and a sap still,” sneered the Inspector as he put the mask on his face. “Cornpudding, kill him.”

Something dark and stinking squirted from the top of the doorframe.

The Earl ducked.

From the window came the call. “Surrender, scouts! Surrender, Earl Fazgood!”

The demon-disease struck the wall by the window.

So shoot, you ill-met!

The writhing blotch sprang.

A honking like that of an immense goose. Dust flew from the window.


The wall turned alabaster. A choking billow of white dust, and the wall thundered and separated from the floor.

The wall was ruined. From corner to corner was bright green-night and the crowd across the square. There was no sign of the Dropsy.

I will not, Fazgood blinked, even think of, or consider, or question, or name that turn of event.

From behind him came a voice, saying:

“This is…singular.”

“Now comes the difficult part,” Fazgood whispered.

He turned around. In the green-night, surrounded by ruin, the swirls of choking white dust glowed, making Fazgood think of dawn would be like in the Hell of the Olivine Demon.

Mehzadapt stood in the doorway, stopped in mid-step, as if arrested by a realization. His fingers had stopped halfway from placing the mask on his face.

The copper gleam of that peaked mask cut through the green gloom, and spread. Mehzadapt’s human flesh took the metallic sheen of Harmonite. His blue blazer and colored cravat remained; a seeming mockery of what he had been. Mehzadapt’s eyes – sharp, watery – remained.

The Earl stood, waiting.

And all I have is an almost-empty bottle of condiment in my pocket, and a mostly-full bottle of tzeimprhoazk.

It was the calmest he had felt in months. His smile was so wide, it made his cheeks hurt.

The floor trembled again; somewhere another part of the keep crumbled further. Outside, across the square voices cried commands, pleas to stop, brash commands and counter-commands. Wind whipped the dust away.

A voice rang from the Inspector like a gong, his voice but not his:

“Where…is…my body?”

The crowd heard this unnatural intonation, and silenced.

The mask has a sympathetic attachment to the Triumph.

The creature looked at Fazgood. The Earl considered options.

He pointed to the opening. “Out there.”

It asked again. “Where…”

The demon that Mehzadapt had become stepped with locked-knees, like an awkward toddler, across the bed.

The citizens saw what stood in the destroyed room.    Across, members of the military, and the police, and the Public Works gathered. Only a minute before, the Earl supposed, they were debating who controlled the situation while the General ordered activated bullets into the keep, daring all to stop his august person. Behind them, even Booloobs hovered, their awesome wrath awaiting a mandate from an authority.

Then citizens screamed. “Demon! Demon!”

For who could not recognize a creature devoted to the Satirist! It was on the very mural behind them, the mural where they had seen Greatsergeant’s grandfather smite day after day.

From the knot of soldiers cried a voice: “No!”

Screamed a voice that used to be sonorous, but now cracked like that of a despairing child. “No! You are mine! You are to be mine!”

Without the mask, any claim the General could make would be mere controversy.

“I will! I will…”

Then Allotropic Greatsergeant looked around him to the Public Works masters and the constable captains, who had all heard him.

The creature looked right to glimpse the Triumph.

This demon said, its voice ringing. “There! I see it.”

It raised its right arm.

The ground shook.

To the right, the great Secure trembled. The center of it seemed to bend and flex, as it was a great neck.

The demon mask stretched and engulfed Mehzadapt’s body, becoming a giant face of the Inspector.

Fazgood seized the bottle of relish from his pocket, then picked up a broken brick. He stepped around the left of the demon and smashed the bottle upon its forehead. Searing relish trickled into its eyes.

It yowled. The trembling ceased.

Fazgood stepped behind, put his foot to the fiend’s rump and pushed. It flipped onto the pile of rubble one floor below.

Beyond, stunned soldiers and officials dropped their gaze to follow the creature down.

The Earl stepped carefully to the edge and looked over. On the stones and shards, the translated Inspector scoured at its eyes and squealed in pain. The neck of the Secure thrashed.

A graybeard in brown robes pointed to the demon, who had just staggered upright:

“See, all! Its eyes are flesh! Aim well!”

Five soldiers carrying a long device swept around to face the new foe. A row of rippling bubbles advanced from the citizenry, their trembles becoming tighter and more acute. The Cumulid flashed in its wispy depths.

Above even the Cumulid, the Earl saw a great sweeping in the mist, as if that of a great hand, the hand of the Temporary God revealed to him by Hrikinik. The sweep gathered into a great poking finger.

What used to be Mehzadapt heard and gave small shrieks.

The Earl leapt back and away into the hall. “Piss-flicking…!”

He turned back inside and sprang across the ruined bed.

“Almost lost you!”

He snatched up the rosebush-shaped bottle and dashed.

Behind, the doorway erupted. Lightning flashed and exploded. Activated energies sang and screamed and transformed. Piercing and interjecting, the most focused Booloob screams swept matter itself into an odorless, gagging wind. From the spirit realm, the Temporary God mashed with coruscating ectoplasm, obliterating even the demon’s soul.

To behold such a fright, and have it so disabled so quickly, this thunderstruck even the screaming populace. Silence dropped upon the thousands.

Came the cry of a citizen:

“Hurray for the Mad Earl!”

The crowd roared its relief and approval! Fazgood crept back to the doorway, now opening onto a pile of rubble facing the square.

The populace of the Kingdom cheered Fazgood. Textured Fabri, feathered Exult, rippling Booloob, Adactoid of all shapes and sizes, humans Theirhe and Rahsic; when all realized who had dispatched the grotesque, all cheered their acclaim.

Fazgood waved, Today it is ‘Hurray for the Mad Earl!’ Tomorrow it will be go-risk-your-life-fetching-my-cat-out-of-the-Pit-of-the-Unnamed.

Then the Earl looked to the General.

The General stood surrounded by officials darkened by dismay and disgust. All had heard Allotropic Greatsergeant’s suspicious exclamation of ownership for that vileness just slain.

Fazgood turned. At the top of the stairs, Varalam and two scouts had lifted and secured the gate. But now they stood in shock.

The Exult said. “I know my eyes. It was the Inspector I saw through the crack in the wall. The Inspector was…changed!”

The scouts shook their heads and protested.

“Believe, deputies!” said the Earl. “You heard them outside! I just pushed him from the room just down the hall, and I tell you! Your boss was a demon!”

They roused enough to be appalled.

Coughed a young, scratched Therihe. “But how could he have been? He has been in service for years!”

“Obviously, he had the ability confound sophisticated determinations! And he out wiled all deductions!”

Another bruised smart-his-betters looked to his peers. “But surely someone would have noticed something foul! Did anyone?”

Fluxion, you give some a path to an excuse, and still they expect you to draw a map!

The Earl thrust his finger through the bars at the churls. “Listen, you! The Inspector led you here!”

He thumped the iron bars of the portcullis. “Into a charge of high treason on false pretenses! He obviously had the power to muddle minds! Unless…you committed high treason while thinking clearly?”

They looked to each other in astonishment. “A demon!” “It explains so much about him!” “Muddled, I was! Muddled!”

“Then scour your memories! I am sure there were many times you suspected he was foul! When Public Works questions you, present even your suspicions with confidence! It is that way that you help your nation! Now speak among yourselves to get your details straight!”

So passed Mehzadapt, and his reputation.

The deputies staggered back down the stairs.

Said the Earl. “Get you gone, citizens!”

“They may still try to shoot us or –“

“If there were a fire, would you flee?”

All whining louts looked around the dark room. “Are we on fire?”

Muck up my plans, will you!

Tucking the precious bottle under his arm, the Earl growled and walked back to the ruined common room. He found a lantern still lit, dusted the rubble from it, and still growling walked back to the top of the stairs. He cranked at the pulleys and raised the gate. Whereupon, he raised the lantern and threw it down in the farthest, still-oil-soaked corner.

Orange flame burst as tall as a man!

Said the Earl. “Indeed! There is a fire! Get you gone, citizens!”

“He is mad!” they cried as one. “The portcullis is raised! He may be at us again!”

The deputies scurried to the front walls. The pickpocket Bookwright was dragged by a stretcher made from blazers and shards of wood; his legs were startlingly askew, showing the end to his bump-and-theft career.

Flickering orange shining upon their backs, they gathered at the chinks of green-night and crawled away:

“We surrender! Have mercy! Do not shoot us!”

Last to leave was Varalam, who pulled bricks and rocks from the top to widen the hole enough to crawl out. Before he made to crawl, he turned back, the scars on his face loose from perplexion. He looked back to the Earl, looked to ask a question.

“Deputy,” Fazgood said while dusting off the bottle. “never let questions get in the way of living a happy life.”

The Adactoid took note of those words, and the scars tightened again. He tucked his hat upon his brow and clambered out.

The flames spread across the floor as if to follow the deputy. Black smoke added to the dust and tingling ozone and heady fumes from the assault. The Earl walked upstairs. He pulled the wax stopper from the Birqmuir spirit and took a breath.

How would a dusk thicket tale write such an end?

He muttered to himself: “She is gone! My love! My Respiration! No. No. She is dead! My love! My Respiration! Greatsergeant, you have killed her…yes. That will do. Wait! What of the captain? Crushed! Yes, that works well.”

Fazgood flung himself to the doorway and cried to the square: “She is dead! My love! My Respiration! Greatsergeant, you have killed her!”

The populace, who had been chastising the deputies with words and thrown objects, looked to the window and pointed and gasped!

Wrist to his eyes, the Earl called. “The captain is crushed! Vile pride has caused such a tragedy!”

People never look so honest as when they are in dismay.

So were the countenances in this throng. They pointed and clung to each other in compassion and dissolution over the Earl’s declaration. Fazgood did not see the General; indeed other soldiers looked about then in confusion.

Fluxion! He got ahead of me again! I have to end the play quick!

“Our love was never meant to be! How cruel to learn this lesson! On the bier of my life, on this pyre of my love, I declare to you, citizens!”

I must be quicker!


It struck the Earl at that moment that up until a few days ago, he did begrudge this city depriving him of those very virtues. Now he felt the most gratifying sneer building. He summed up:


He had almost lost the crowd through the smoke pouring from the second floor, but he could hear their dismay and…Was that weeping?

The sobbing built. “Long stay the Concord!”

Not a bad death speech this time, he took a drink, I’m getting better at them.

That satisfaction did him in.

It just slipped from his lips.

He put the wax stopper back in the bottle, turned back to the secret door and declared this:

“Everything is sorted out.”

His hand was on the door. He groaned and grimaced and spat and wiped to ward off Zhazh, but he knew it was too late. He looked back at the window, at the thickening smoke and the hallway brightening with orange. He sucked his lip, head down and nodded.

He huffed. “Ah just go ahead!”

A dark shape like a wet, prickling blanket swung from the ceiling. It slapped him back to the window. Tucking and rolling, Fazgood protected the green bottle in his grip. He recovered to his feet. The Dropsy arched onto the floor between the Earl and the secret door.

“Did you not hear, you earless snot? Your boss is dead!”

Its oozing was slow, careful, crafty. It feinted to the left.

Fazgood realized: “Ah! You want to brag to all the other phlegm that you ate the Mad Earl!”

It hopped forward, looking to press the Earl into the far corner. Fazgood’s eyes stung from the thickening smoke. He crouched low to breath clearer.

“You snot-bubble! I have dodged assassins of more shapes than you can imagine!”

He hid his hands as he wrested the stopper from the bottle. It gurgled.

I’d just pour the tzeimprhoazk on myself and tackle the Dropsy! But if I miss, it would just slip out the window and into the city!

It feinted to the right.

Fazgood shook the bottle’s neck at the Dropsy. A glistening stream sprayed. The formless thing cowered. Fazgood sprang after the stream to flank the Dropsy away from the window.

He shook again! Again! He backed the Dropsy away from the window and against the bed!

Choking from the thickening smoke, the Earl wiped the sweat from his eyes.

The cunning germ leapt between the shakes. It swung from the right. It knocked the Earl onto his back beside the bed. The Dropsy collapsed upon his legs.

His flesh seared.

It eats!

Fazgood screamed and flung the bottle at the ceiling above them, intending to break it and have the liquor shower upon the monster.

As it arced, drops sparkled from the bottle, but not many.

The bottle made a sharp thump against the ceiling! Then it fell upon the bed, intact, far from his reach.

The creature writhed and shuddered as the few drops fell on it. But it crushed Fazgood in its digestive grip.

All this, he thought, just to be brought down by flu!

A sharp cry! The crack of wood! The heap of Dropsy rose from his legs and swung around backward. The pain in his legs dimmed.

He opened his eyes.

Calzhja stood over him. She wore simple workman’s clothes, and held a shattered piece of furnishing, her face lit by a lantern she held. “What do I do?”

“Kill the god-poxied thing!”

She sprang into the room out of Fazgood’s view. The Dropsy hurled itself against the secret door, and bounded in pursuit.

Fazgood seized the mattress and pulled himself up. In the center of the room, Calzhja had gotten close to the Dropsy and bashed it with the lantern. Its fuel trickled out upon it. The disease swung around again.

“What kills it? I thought alcohol! It is a disease!”

The Earl gasped in pain. “Does that…look like ordinary flu? Get the god-poxied bottle of tzeimprhoazk! It’s from holy springs!”

The demon-germ struck Calzhja in the hip and flung her away from the bed.

She crumbled against the wall. “Where is the bottle? Where?”

“It is on the bed!”

Again! I have to draw maps!

He pulled himself onto the bed and saw the bottle. Its contents surged from the neck. The sheets were wet with the liquor.

His left thigh found the puddle. Every nerve and muscle scorched with pain.

He screamed, grabbed the bottle and rolled off the bed toward the fight.

The Earl struck the floor and found the pain paralyzed him.

The Dropsy lunged. Calzhja sprang out of the way to the door. She caught a gout of smoke in her lungs and fell to her knees choking.

The demonic disease rose to engulf her.

Fazgood cried out. His legs gathered under him and he stumbled forward.

Calzjha staggered forward and seized the wet bedsheet. The Dropsy sprang. She spun and pulled the sheet. The Dropsy lunged into the cloth.

Wrapped in the cloth soaked with blessed alcohol, the Dropsy cringed and wrestled away across the room. The creature’s back melted. Stinking slime sprayed the room.

Its insides spilled; objects tumbled. A shriveled and broken bone, a pitted and slimed metal scabbard for a dagger, the eroded bowl of a human skull; anything that was too large for Cornpudding to cough or eliminate from years of victims.

Laying beside the bed, Fazgood looked at his legs.

The cloth of his pants was eaten away under his thighs, and his shoes were smoking tatters. His flesh was raw, wet and bleeding. He tried to sit up, and skin on his right thigh sloughed away. His face grew cold.

I cannot go into shock!

Fazgood cursed and took a breath, so that he would not pass out.

Calzhja crawled to his side.

The Earl gritted his teeth in pain. “I accept your petition for employment.”

She shook her head and wiped tears from her eyes. Her voice was hoarse: “Up!”

She tore the shoes away and eased him to his feet.

The Earl clenched his jaw and screamed. “I paid good money for those shoes!”

“I will buy you another pair!”

“With my money!”

They staggered into the secret room, past the disjoint vault, dark and dead.

“Close the door! To delay the smoke!”

Calzhja wrestled to do so while carrying the Earl, but did so, and pitched the room into darkness.

Calzjha climbed down first, with the Earl’s feet upon her shoulders. Fazgood supported his weight in the handholds.

He cast his mind, [Squire! Is our escape ready?]

[It is, my Earl! They have been waiting! Calzhja insisted on going to get you! Did she get the way again?]

The Earl’s grip slipped on the ladrail. Pain shot up his legs. Calzhja’s shoulders kept him steady.

[She is actually proving quite useful.]

[Are you well?]

His grip tightened within the next limbhold, [I have seen better health.]

[I will have all prepared.]

Calzhja reached the bottom of the ladrail. With a warning to the Earl, she dropped to the sewer floor. The Earl mustered all of his strength to lower himself by his hands and drop. Calzhja and another set of hands caught him. The water splashed his feet and seared as if it was boiling. He gasped and cried out again.

Beside them sat a mass of skin, trembling, eyes rolling in consciousness. Only the ascot and moustache told that it was Cornpudding. The entire of Cornpudding’s insides comprised the Dropsy and now the deputy was dying.

Hands grabbed Fazgood.

Helping him to his feet was a dark, frail Rahsic. He was bald, with a sharp nose and a thin, greying goatee.

Growled the Earl. “Greetings, brother-in-law. What a story will this make in your book.”

Fazgood’s brother-in-law, Yet-More-Muscular whimpered, but held his grip on the Earl’s arm. “I did not want to cause you a bother! Did I cause you a bother? I am sorry!”

“Take me along, wretch. Obviously your wife got my note.”

Calzjha lifted Fazgood’s other arm. She and the brother-in-law carried the Earl.

“What do you mean ‘what a story?’” she asked.

The Earl grunted. “You look upon Fazcelestial’s ink-stained husband, … the god-poxied writer of ‘The Nimblest Man’.”

The man cringed and nodded. “Yet-More Muscular Claimant. I believe you have met my wife. But I presume! Or perhaps you did not meet her and that was someone else who did.”

“Oh! That was me!”

The Earl cried. “Hurry, you two! We do not have time for introductions!”

They struggled up the side of the canal. Greatsergeant Keep was engulfed.

The smoke was dark slate above, swirling with flames. Fire jetted from its murderholes and windows, like hellish vents in the Black Cliffs. As in the square, arcs of water sprang and twinkled into the flames, raising gouts of steam.

They carried the Earl through the backyards.

In Cliffside-Bastles, the residents crowded the street.

The brother-in-law produced a towel, which was placed over the Earl’s head. The street was thick with gawkers.

Said Yet-More-Muscular. “Ple – please! St- stand aside! Please!”

The Earl bellowed. “Burned man, damn you! Burned man needing access, you heartless louts! Stand aside! Aside or I’ll punch your souls!”

People sprang away. Fazgood peeked enough to glimpse brown robed figures around a corner fountain, beseeching and wrestling a column of water from within to fly at the keep. Yet-More-Muscular led them down a street away from the crowd and to a covered rickshaw.

Calzhja whispered. “Was this your plan?”

“It is close enough,” the Earl said. “There lays one last step. Keep alert.”




6 08 2014

Across the square, under the visage of Greatsergeant’s grandfather clobbering the demon, Mehzadapt watched. He wore a merchant’s blue suit and went bareheaded.
Outside the keep, some twenty paces away, three soldiers had been waiting and watching the passing citizens.
From the western arterial came startled calls, a disturbance in the foot traffic.
The co-conspirator captain and a woman he did not recognize dashed to the keep, opened the door and slammed it shut. The soldiers turned to each other in puzzlement, then walked to the keep and, subtly, tried the door.
And stayed standing on the threshold.
Locked? The guards are locked away from the Earl?
The Inspector growled, Pompous idiot soldiers! But what of Fazgood’s note? And how did the General know my name? Fazgood’s playing at something!
The three soldiers looked around the courtyard at the passersby. When no one was looking, all three shoved at the door. It did not budge.
General Greatsergeant strode across the square. Heedless of passersby, he berated the men
Mehzadapt laughed out loud.
There! The window at the second story – the contemplation room, so the Inspector had been told – there a human waved in broad, inviting strokes.
Arrayed around the square in disguise were nine of his deputies; led by the three most capable deputies (sadly for the Inspector’s temper, they were now the three most unruly); In the far corner, Bookwright stood still as a post, expectant. Before the postings of stories and events, Tlezjoy bobbed on his feet; Varalam delicately cracked one knuckle at a time, the sound lost among in the murmur of early evening perambulations.
This is the most important moment of my life, the Inspector thought, and then thrust that thought away.
“Come!” he said, and he strode to the keep. The others joined his walk, matching his pace. Nearer, the soldiers showed the shoulder braids of a sergeant and two corporals; and on the fourth the Greatsergeant brow was now obvious. Doubtless the other three were baggage carriers, restrainers for the Earl, and bodyguards for the General. Just as the large sergeant made to speak, the Inspector stopped, drew his hat from under his blazer, and placed it carefully on his head. The deputies did likewise.
The sergeant sneered. “I told your sort that the General wants you away!”
Drawing breath to imply tolerance for a dullard, the Inspector said. “You are a dupe in a conspiracy against the Kingdom. Stand away and let me pass or you will be charged will low treason.”
Nearer the door, the General stepped before the Inspector. “What say you, vermin-herder?”
Though Mehzadapt often referred to himself such the same, the contempt in that voice made the Inspector’s jaw clench.
“Am I speaking to General Allotrope Greatsergeant, the man?”
The General said. “We are on a mission of honor. We have no need of your assistance.”
“So,” observed the Inspector. “we Scouts are unable to assist in honorable dealings. Is that what you say?”
“I say that we need no assistance.”
“That is good, for we offer no assistance. We investigate. Please stand aside or be arrested.”
Greatsergeant stepped close. “Your name is Mehzadapt.”
The Inspector thought, Fazgood has been talking to the General. People dashing in unexpected; what brews here?
Posturing for the gathering onlookers, the General declaimed loudly. “Leave my family alone, scout! Have we not sorrows enough?”
“’Sorrows’!” spat that scout. “you live with a fine wife and servants. Your sorrow is that you could not keep her from dallying! With a foreigner!”
The General’s dark skin darkened further, and he pointed in Mehzadapt’s face. “Leave, you!”
“Dallying with a foreigner!”
Behind them, a rumble passed through the crowd.
“Leave! Leave while you still have your rank and vocation.”
“Deputies,” said the Inspector. “break them.”
Varalam’s great hands pushed the General aside. The other deputies produced skullwarmers and attacked the two subordinates. Cries of alarm rang across the square. From their posts at the corners and at the arterial entrance, police officers ran forward to help, but there were only four of those police.
When they hesitated, the Inspector called to them. “Let us do our task or you will be charged with low treason.”
The police knew the Inspector and noted his seriousness.
One called: “Public Works will be notified! You had better adhere to the Uniform Guild Protocols!”
“Article Seven, you rogues!” yelled another. “You will answer for those soldiers if no offense is found!”
Greatsergeant sprang from the beating and sprinted to the eastern arterial, toward the Plaza of the Superb and his headquarters.
The two soldiers were unconscious. Deputies whooped and moved to pursue the General, but the Inspector called. “Leave him! Let him bring more! All the more to help arrest him when the time comes!”
The Inspector tried the door. Barred.
The bar behind the door rattled, and the door opened. There stood someone with a searing, direct gaze, and a buoyant and vigorous bearing. It took Mehzadapt a blink before he recognized Fazgood’s face.
“Inspector!” called the Earl. “Good! You brought overwhelming force! Enter!”
Then he vanished within. Mehzadapt growled under his breath and waved the deputies to follow him.
The anteroom was dark to a sickly gloom. Broken furniture littered the anteroom. Across the shambles, the Earl trotted up the stairs.
“What stinks?” said Tlezjoy.
“Shut up, you,” said the Inspector, but Tlezjoy was correct. A cloying, flowery stench filled the air; at another turn, the nose stung from lantern oil.
“The Goodwife knows all is lost, and has taken a hand at decorating. It does not matter.”
The Inspector remembered the rejoinder at the end of the Earl’s message. His pounding heart chilled.
Is this a trap?
“After him, you!” and Mehzadapt sprang over the furniture and trotted to the bottom of the stairs.
The Earl’s voice rang. “Do not panic so! I bring you to Greatsergeant’s treasure!”
“Where is the Goodwife? Where are those two who ran in?”
“All upstairs! You can catch and arrest them all!”
A deputy blurted. “Are you truly the Mad Earl?”
Fazgood looked to the subordinates and raised a brow to the deputy. “I am certified so by Public Works.”
“How far away is the College of Incorrigibles?” asked Tlezjoy.
Another asked. “Why did you leave the Earldom? What a grand job!”
“Shut up, all of you!” yelled the Inspector.
All the deputies did shut up, and the hard resentful looks returned.
The Earl looked upon back down at them with amity. “Deputies! Good citizens all! I will be glad to have a good talk later, over something good and malty. Mehzadapt, I would like to take time with you to reminisce. I could start with the Eleven Circles!”
The deputies looked to one another with disdainful snorts. “Those scum! Those rebels!”
The cold leaked into Mehzadapt’s bowels.
He looked close at the Earl; The vague softness of the man the Inspector had obligated was gone. That man looked down from the top of the stairs at Mehzadapt. His stance was straight and seeming unbudgeable. His dark eyes glinted with an unseemly amusement.
Just a few steps ahead on the stairs, and a floor above was the evidence that would save Mehzadapt from a life of paving roads, and fulfill dreams of triumph.
What has given Fazgood this new wind? Would he assassinate me as we go up the stairs? But he would never escape.
And just a few steps away was the prize that would secure me the magnateship, and keep me from a life paving the Royal Road.
Cornpudding is on his way, Fazgood, you treacherous and naïve wretch. But we cannot have witnesses for whatever you may say upstairs.
He looked to his underlings and said. “You stay downstairs, Make sure that the general does not obstruct us further.”
Varalam rumbled and stepped, looming up the stairs. “There are others up there, Inspector.”
The Inspector watched Fazgood for the comforting cringe that Varalam’s scarred menace invoked.
Remarked Fazgood. “The inspector is more than enough for those citizens, deputy.”
The Earl looked from the Inspector to the massive Adactoid, and his mocking smile did not falter. Even Varalam betrayed hesitancy at that with a slight scuff of his step.
After scorning it for so many months, now Mehzadapt wished he had read “The Nimblest Man”.
He said to his deputy. “Come, Varalam. The rest of you search the downstairs and mind that door.”
The hulking Adactoid trotted up the stairs to join the Inspector. The two trudged up to join Fazgood at the top of the stairs.
Fazgood whispered to Mehzadapt. “Can you trust those deputies? I have heard that skinny one call you some hard names.”
Mehzadapt glanced back down at his subordinates and grimaced. He growled. “Where is it?”
“Ah. Up these stairs, in the master bedroom with the others.”
They trotted up the stairs to the great room on the second floor.
The door was open. Arrayed about the room were the conspirators: Captain Childteacher by the window swelling with rage at sight of the Inspector, the goodwife beside him holding his arm, and the girl in the ragged-hemmed purple wrap. She crouched with hands open and flat, and dark eyes challenging.
At the opposite wall, where a lacquered panel should have been, was an opening dim-lit with a white glow.
Fazgood smirked. “Here are our guests! Be polite everyone! We are all friends!”
The girl stood eased from her crouch, her eyes wary.
“Inspector,” said the Earl. “you have met the goodwife and you have tortured the captain. I present my associate the Foofaloof.”
Though not buxom, most of the girl’s breasts showed and thus confirmed her sex.
“The Foofaloof!” said the Scout. “This is no man!”
Muttered the Earl. “Just wait a day or so.”
The Inspector ignored that confusing comment. He and the deputy strode into the room. “You three are all under arrest by the Scout Brigades! You will show me the loot that the General has hidden! Is the money in there?”
He moved to the opened panel. He peered inside.
The glow peeked from a gap in a black cloth cover, like that of a small tent. Pushing the gap further, the white light showed it was actually varicolored. Clawing his way through brittle and dazzling diaphene, he found a black box, empty.
Wiping his face and brow, the Inspector withdrew and reeled on the conspirators.
“A disjoint vault! What in Enthus’ name has been kept here?”
Obdurate’s rage bordered on feral. Still he managed a sneer. “It is not money, you fool! It is a magic device of great power.”
The goodwife said. “We should use it!”
“What use is stealth now?” snapped Fazgood. “It is too late to go sneaking about! Where would any of us sneak to? What a sum we could have made from its sale!”
“Where is it? What does it do?”
The Earl made a sour face. “It…is an Ijkallan enchantment. It baffles sight, but only at night. At day, it is useless. It only works for its wearer. But it is silent! It needs no incantation to maintain its effect!”
“Do you see how valuable that is?” said Varalam. “If we give it to the police, they will –“
Shouted the Inspector. “Shut up! Where is it?”
“It has been moved downstairs, safely. I know a way to make movable disjoints.”
Varalam sneered. Noting that, the Inspector also made mock. “Leaving the city? Where is the device?”
“In one of four boxes in the guest room.”
The scouts looked to each other in puzzlement.
Explained the Earl. “To make a disjoint shipment is tricky. Even if you line a box with diaphene, and a spirit cannot see diaphene, an inquired spirit could point at the box and say, ‘This box came from the disjoint in the keep.’ So I got three boxes alike in every way. I took them within the disjoint. I cut and folded diaphene from the disjoint and filled the secretaries within the disjoint box. Into one is placed the device, a mask. The diaphene keeps the spirits from seeing within the boxes. So I pack up the boxes while in the disjoint, and hand them out to the Foofaloof, who arranges them downstairs in the guest room, not on the ground floor where the deputies are, so that I do not know which box I handed out and when. Ship them separately to the same location, and there you have your device transported, and the spirits stay confused.”
Mind reeling, Mehzadapt snapped at the goodwife. “Is this doorway a passage to the canal?”
She startled. “It is.”
Cornpudding may not yet be in place! Even if he was ready, he would still hide to avoid all these witnesses! I must get these people out of this room for him to —
Fazgood said. “What are the deputies doing? I hope they are not opening the keep door!”
Heart pounding, the Inspector seized the excuse and waved. “Come downstairs, all of you!”
None moved.
The hulking Adactoid made to seize the Foofaloof’s wrist. The girl slapped the heavy paw away with a sharp blow.
“Come all!” declared Fazgood. “There is no need for rudeness, deputy! We will come!”
All filed out the door, leaving both the deputy and Inspector blinking.
Who commands here?
They went down to the floor with the common room. They looked over the anteroom. The door was still barred. The deputies looked out the windows.
One called. “There are soldiers gathering!”
“There are more coming every moment!” another yelped. “They are shoving against the door!”
Sneered the Inspector. “Let them break their shoulders! Those iron bonds in the door will hold! The walls are as thick as you are tall! Deputy Varalam, take the detainees to the common room!”
The deputy glowered and motioned. From halfway down the hall, a deep murmur came from the common room
All ran into the room and looked out the window. At the far side of the square, citizenry swarmed, their perimeter defined by a thin, harried line of police. Beneath their window, heads and maroon-covered shoulders scurried around the base of the keep.
One held up a megaphone: “Push!”
All heaved back as one and swung forward. A crash against the door.
Fazgood commented. “Look at that! The General is laying siege on his own home with a ram!”
More crashes in rhythm to the commands! Cries of alarm echoed through the keep!
From the hallway came the Inspector. “Hold the wall, deputies! The door doesn’t even twitch!”
He strode across the room and shoved everyone away from the window.
The Inspector cried out to the massed soldiers. “You are a traitor, Greatsergeant! We have the proof in your secret room!”
The megaphone tilted up: “Surrender, you vermin-herds!”
The phone turned to the waiting crowd. “The Inspector is deluded! Surrender, Earl Fazgood! I know you made threats to kill my poor wife!”
“What have you in the secret room?” called the Inspector.
“The Inspector is deluded! Push!”
The deputies cried out, but less so then before.
“Call out, goodwife!” snarled the Inspector. “He would hold his assault for your sake!”
The Goodwife looked to Fazgood, who nodded. She stepped to the window and called. “Husband, I am hostage! You are being rash –“
“She is under duress!” sang out the General. “She is under duress from the traitor Inspector and the stranger Fazgood! They told me they would kill her! For your love of my family, push! We will avenge them!”
The Inspector felt the heat drain from his face.
He means to kill us all, to eliminate witnesses to his corruption!
“Push! Push!”
From downstairs came mocking laughter from the deputies.
Varalam looked in from the doorway. “The door holds fast.”
The Earl noted. “That ramming makes no dent, but much noise. That is his intent! So that we cannot call our tale to the public! Clever man, but how can he keep up the noise?”
The crowd across the square had grown to hundreds. They called and shrieked, but as they were Harmoniads, they did not press the row of police who cordoned them.
The Inspector made out some of their cries between the blows of the ram: “Surrender, good Fazgood!” “ Be noble, Earl!” “Do not go further mad!”
Mehzadapt’s jaw clenched: Do they not care for my welfare? Support the tradition of the Scout Brigades?
The Earl seemed equally angered. “’Further mad!’”
Out the window came the call. “Soldiers, withdraw!”
The soldiers trotted away from the door to the far end of the square. The crowd quieted.
“Ah,” said the Earl. “It is never good when that happens.”
Mehzadapt started. “What? Why?”
A rush of sound, like a chorus of tuned rattles. A blue flash flickered the square. Thunder rolled through the keep. Dust billowed. A shriek swept the crowd.
The deputies wailed. The Inspector dove to the floor. Varalam had crouched to cover the Inspector with his body. Meanwhile, Fazgood had merely taken a step back from the window.
Noted the Earl. “Activated bullets! I have not heard one since the Three Cities!”
Mehzadapt seized his hat from the floor and struggled to stand. “No one has shot activated bullets here since the siege!”
A shrug: “He wants to kill us.”
From the stairs, cries and running! Varalam and the conspirators stood; all gawked at the Earl’s good cheer.
He said. “Your deputies are coming upstairs! If they get upstairs to the master bedroom and find the secret way, off they go with anything they can stick in their pockets. I have been through a siege; you have my sympathy.”
“Deputy Varalam!” Mehzadapt pointed at the door. “Get them back downstairs! Tell them I have the evidence!”
Fazgood said to the girl. “Calzjha, go help the deputy.”
She asked. “Are you certain? Will you be safe?”
“I will be well. Go, you.”
She sprinted out the door.
“You send that girl to stop my deputies? Are you mad?”
“Varalam is not that large. She should have enough space to stand.”
Across the room, Respiration stood in shock, the Captain holding her close.
The Earl did tell me the captain was having the affair with the goodwife. This makes sense, of all this.
“Obdurate!” shouted Fazgood. “Keep Respiration on the stairs! Calzjha needs your help!”
Mehzadapt stepped to the captain. “I command!”
“Those reminders,” the goodwife’s eyes burned. “should prove helpful to someone!”
The Earl guffawed.
The soldier brought the woman to the door. He looked to the hallway, then called back. “The deputies are at the top of the stairs!”
Mehzadapt sprang to the window. He followed Fazgood’s gaze to the clouds over the citadel. A rolling nimbus swelled toward the square. The wind whipped in the room.
By the Compact! That is the Army of Invitation’s Cumulid! It could persuade lightning to strike us!
He seized the shoulder of Fazgood’s blazer. “Upstairs! Get me this device!”
“The deputies first! Come!”
“Varalam can handle –“
But the Earl walked to the door in measured, energetic steps, whistling a sprightly tune. Mehzadapt gaped at the relaxed demeanor when came another resounding noise, a popping and buzzing that deafened. Varalam shouted all to hold fast. Then the second bullet struck the keep door.


16 07 2014

In the pale, windy dawn, before the excited throng in Lanthornmount Square, a great cloud above the Citadel descended. The citizens sang and roared and crowed their delight. General Allotrope Greatsergeant had returned.

The tale cascaded through Harmonium: General Greatsergeant had flown in the mouth of the Army of Invitation’s Cumulid, this Cumulid who now glided above, taking a craggy altonimbus’ guise. The General had ridden the Army of Invitation’s Cumulid all the way from the Ijkallas, three days in the swiftest being of the air, flying as fast as a hurricane’s wind. But not riding atop that fleet’s Cumulid, as earthbound beings were able to do for a few hours at a time.

The General had flown nestled in the Cumulid’s mouth. High in the atmosphere for thousands of thin-breathing miles. It had been done before; magicians were bourn so by the Consortium of Aerial Beings, but to do so for days was a test of endurance that proved the greatness of the kingdom and those who defended it.

Within the crowd, Calzjha wore a dress she snatched from their luggage as she dashed from the keep. Under her arm was the basket containing Warren, the wicker basket being common to the city. Around them, the crowd shared astonishment:

“Did you hear? His wife was caught betraying her marriage.”

“Betrayed her husband with a foreign guest she was sponsoring.”

“My sister-in-law hauled that Foofaloof in her rickshaw. She said the fellow was so charming.”

“That Ijkallan did not enter into it. My brother said it was some lackey who claims to be the Earl of Weiquant.”

“The Mad Earl! Nonsense. But what a tragedy for the Greatsergeants. Again.”

“What a terrible blow for the Foofaloof.”

“The poor, dear Foofaloof.”

Calzjha’s heart panged at their sympathy.

Above the city, the descending cloud gathered and rounded to avoid touching the rooftops. Citizens popped their curious heads from windows to gawp at the huge, billowing white underbelly.

That is how Cumulids traveled unnoticed; adapting their skins to seem like their surrounding meteorological dependants.

At the edge of Lanthornmount Square, above the Temple of Public Works, the cloud cascaded toward the flagstones. At the Cumulid’s front, the semblance of pudgy cheeks and bulbous nose unfurled. In an orderly, Harmoniad fashion, the crowd itself eased back to allow entrance.

Long tentacles extended to the surrounding buildings. Plate-like eyes, larger than gate arches, gave an expression of chagrin at so much attention.

The tentacles drew back. Revealed was a great cavern of mouth, arched and glowing like the anteroom of the Amusatorium.

Within that glow, a shadow stood. It took two, three steps. The man swayed as if exhausted, then steadied himself and hopped upon the brick of the square. The high forehead, the firm jaw unmistakable from his ancestor upon the ever-battling mural. The General had arrived.

The Cumulid swept its lower lip back and swept back up, wind pulling clothes, tugging hair, tearing papers from some awe-slackened clerk and sent flapping into a whirlwind. The great shy face blended with the illusion of cloudbanks. The Cumulid undulated away, casting its huge, diffuse shadow along the Arterial, to join that white quasi-nimbus of Royal Cumulid above the Citadel. The two clouds eased to each other, and stilled.

General Greatsergeant eased his attention to the Citadel. He looked upon it, the sunset gleaming in rose from the walls, that same russet sun striking his brown, chisled profile and edging his hair with gold. The wind ebbed and eased. The crowd settled from their excitement, and seeing the General so stilled and preoccupied, gathered their attention upon him. They drew closer.

He looked upon Harmonium, seeming lost in thought. Then Greatsergeant turned to the crowd. His voice was mellow yet strong, and carried over the breathless square:

“So long I have waited. Near two years away, seeing the marvels of exotic shores and the glories of peoples newly found. Yet…”

The General looked again upon the Citadel.

“…all are faint shadows compared to the sight of Harmonium,” he said.

A ripple of delight swept through the crowd. A woman standing beside Calzjha gasped with pride.

Calzjha muttered in Adanikarese. “Splendid. That entrance was so…poxied…splendid.”

At her elbow, Warren peeked from the basket. [Calzjha, please. We must get to the Birqmuir embassy.]

She thought, [We have time. I am in a new disguise. I am double-guised as they are looking for a man. I want to see the General. Fazgood always says that to gain an enemy’s measure, you must survey him yourself.]

“I have come in such an expedient conveyance,” The soldier drew out the word wryly to emphasize that it was not his lot to be comfortable. “To relate the admiration of the Ijkallan people as I presented myself to our Royal Family. Another splendid race of beings wish to join our Kingdom and Concord. I have come to bring the tidings of their people for your approval.”

Warren had slipped his head from the basket. [What is this. Do I understand this? He traveled from halfway across the world in that Cumulid’s mouth, presented himself to the Royal Family where he undoubtedly warmed and fed himself, then climbed back in the mouth to present himself here as freshly weary? What pomposity.]

Calzjha snorted. [I…yes. Yes. That is what he has done. I told you this would be invaluable.]

“There has been,” spoke the General toward the Keep, “much sadness in my family. This is but another difficulty in a family that has survived greater woes. I am committed to my love, my family and my kingdom. Through the help of my people…”

He opened his hands to beseech the crowd.

“…and the Concord, all will be made well.”

The crowd, over three thousand strong spilling along the Arterial and side streets, was moved by his pious devotion and nodded, hushed.

Warren peered. [Assailing a crowd this large requires great confidence.]

[But he is so simple! He plucks at the words “love” and “kingdom” and “family” and “Concord” again and again without any artfulness.]

The weasel chided, [They seem to like him.]

Calzjha made to shove Warren’s head down. Warren ducked back into the basket.

The General opened his hands to the crowd in a plea. “I have come bearing sad tidings for the Ijkallan delegation, for the son given the title the Grand Foofaloof.”

Warren popped back out of the basket and looked at Calzjha.

“He must be told of the grave illness of his father. I came in the noble Cumulid of the Invitation Army to bring the loving son back to his father’s side. I fear that the poor man may not last the night. But I have been told the Foofaloof has disappeared. Perhaps he is grieving or ashamed of the events of last night. But his father is dying and I bear no ill will. I wish to fly him back to his home, before it is too late.”

Dismay swept the crowd.

A woman near them: “The Foofaloof is such a merry being. I hope he is not distraught.”

To their left, a man: “A splendid fellow. He had the whole textile market roaring with laughter.”

Warren squeaked, [That…that tricky bastard. The entire city now looks for us.]

Calzjha could barely suppress her smile. [They love me so. And I love them.]

[Dolt! If the General gets hold of us, we may go up in that Cumulid, but we will come down without it, and over an ocean.]

Backing out of the crowd, she thought, [I must go to the Terhane Residences.]

The black eyes widened, [It is too late for the embassies. They will be watching. You still resemble the Foofaloof too closely. You must come up with a better disguise, or a distraction, or a ruse.]

She froze, aghast. [Why me? You are the playwrite. A play which, I should say, was absolutely horrible. How could you write such lines for me?]

[Ah!] Warren pounded the basket. [So you did roll your eyes at your lines. Art is a curative. Sometimes medicines make ill before they cure.]

[You make ill with your presence!]

[You wish you had one tenth of my intelligence. You are ashamed of your awe.]

Calzjha groaned and hunched through the remainder of the crowd. [I am awed of your dreariness. If you are so intelligent, think up a ruse then.]

[So I will.]

[Then do it.]

[Stop twittering at me; I’m trying to think.] Warren banged the basket shut.

Meanwhile, Warren thought, [My liege, I know you are preoccupied. But….may I disturb you?]


*         *         *


The Eximus Quayfort was mushroom shaped and squat from the outside. Fazgood was familiar with the design; the Xhnar had been royalty in the Kingdom before divesting themselves of the Compact, and founding their own land. They used the Eximus as a basis for their keeps in the Three Cities.

The common room on the third and highest level in the fortress was a design that balanced security with social grace. Walls were of thick brick covered with smooth, white plaster. A latticework of ablewood allowed guards to walk atop the ceilings and look in upon their charges. On the latticework stood three guards, whose expressions revealed nothing, but whose staring eyes alternated from hard determination at the importance of their task, to twinkling wonder at the charge’s identity.

Below on a stool, the Earl stared at the whiteness, ignoring the bitter smell of plaster, seeing only his thoughts.

Public Works will be here to determine me, that is well and good. The General will get nothing from Respiration, and he dare not have her determined. Obdurate is probably at the General’s side, or soon will be. His nerve will be a problem; but will it? He gave up nothing to the scouts. How I underestimated him.

His arm still tingled where it had pushed against Respiration’s breast.

Now. Now, the General doesn’t know where the Foofaloof is, and that must be making him frantic. Calzjha must be in the embassy by now. Where in the several dozen hells is Public Works?

[My liege, I know you are preoccupied. But…may I disturb you?]

The Earl considered, Warren is not panicking. That is good. Everything must be going smoothly.

[Squire, I am well. What have you?]

[My liege. We are doomed. The General just asked the entire city to look for us.]

The Earl suppressed a groan. [You are in the embassy, I hope?]

[We are surrounded in Lanthornmount Square. Calzjha wanted to see the General. It was rumored that the man would speak this morning.]

The weasel conveyed the events, and the Earl’s groan ran free.

The Earl scrubbed his forehead. [It is too late to get to the embassy. By this time, the General will have it under watch, saying the Foofaloof is panicking or some such. But you discovered the General wants to keep up the pretense. We can use that.]

[We could drive a group of people to the gates of the embassy to confuse the watchers, as you did with the Adanikarese Trade House.]

Fazgood sucked his lip. [The palace guards will be too smart, and the streets there are too narrow. The police would just cordon and interrogate one at a time. They would also stop and search all messengers.]

[Perhaps something to draw the police away?]

[Lose the basket and hide yourself within a bundle of clothes. Contact the captain, and have him escort Calzjha to the embassy in best dress. The captain is Greatsergeant’s voice; no one will bother him today.]

[Yes. I hope he is well enough.]

[He will be.]

The Earl’s face turned grim. [I would have liked him at my side back at the Earldom. Tell Calzjha she may flirt with the soldiers. That will keep her calm.]

The door latch clacked and the white painted door slid open. A maroon coated soldier escorted two old, dark-skinned humans in brown. The Earl brightened.

[Ah. Here comes Public Works. Go to your task.]

[Yes, my liege.]

The Earl looked to the men with anticipation.

They unrolled a square of black velvet, upon which was embroidered a large red square. The first gray-haired man rattled and rolled between his hands a set of lotsticks. He hummed and cast.

The sign of the Great Monstrous Broom lay, its staff pointing at the Earl.

Fazgood eyed it glumly. “Ah. That.”

Silence smothered the room. Shocked stares locked upon the Earl and their breathing stopped. The men backed away, thumped into the wall behind them, reached over their shoulders and knocked upon the door in tiny, sharp strokes. The door opened and they slipped out. The door slammed shut.

Fazgood looked up from the red sticks at the guard standing on the lattice above. “I have the foulest time with that…”

The guard was gone. Running footsteps clattered the latticework, receding, gone. Sharp rattling tapped Fazgood’s eardrums. From the top of the wall with the door, darkness raced across to the top of the wall behind him, and stopped its progress with a solid boom. The diffused light turned to sharp bands of light and dark. Outside the door, a similar boom.

Counter-weighted and tracked concrete blocks on the ceiling and door.

Ah. I forgot. Those are part of the design here as well.

The Earl grimaced in the stark light.

Will the Temporary God be disassembled? If so, that lotcaster in the scout brigades will be sent back to the Inspector.

He sighed and thought: What state are Mehzadapt’s deputies in? I fed two of them enough of that relish.

He cast his mind back to the keep, to the very spot among the glass bottles where he left the Lava-God-Vengeance Relish: Hope it doesn’t ignite the perfumes.

What had I just considered? Ah. Feeding relish to sow dissension, and dropping enough hints to my identity to that Tlezjoy. Those deputies must be quite excitable about being kept ignorant by Mehzadapt. Now when is that cursed General going to come?


*       *       *


Mehzadapt sat pressing his fingers tight against his teacup so tight, his fingernails were white. His heart pounded. It is true, or true enough. The General is not here for any Ijkallan lie. He is here to protect his graft. His being in Harmonium makes everything much easier. Today I will have exposed a conspiracy and be seated firmly upon a paragon.

The vote is tomorrow. I must have him today to sway Inspector Akekek and be elected Magnate.

He glared at the maid at the door, who moved to fill the half-emptied cup. The Inspector had taken a liking to the Bellflowers after having twisted the Earl here that night. Outside the window, and below, this side alley of the Foreign Due swept and swirled in the lively dance of commerce. Emissaries from the scout captains of the city scurried in and out of the meeting room all morning.

Petitions and promises were sent by messenger to the captains. The notes that returned were polite and perfunctory.

No support. Not one captain will back me. I have to get the General now, and get Inspector Akekek’s support, before I am destroyed.

From the open window of the warehouse, just under the sill, the crowns of three plughats shifted and tilted hats; by height he knew the highest hat was Deputy Varalam’s, there was the top half of Varalam’s gray head beneath. At least Varalam could keep them in some propriety.

Even now the Adactoid growled. “Keep quiet, you.”

One deputy’s deep vibrato, almost subsonic as a tremblar. “The whole city talks about it. We cannot?”

“I told you: I knew so.” whined another, which he recognized as Tlezjoy.

“You knew nothing,” said Varalam.

“I saw him throw beannuts and strike a policeman fifty strides away. He told me of his traveling in mountains is his youth; he was supposed to be from islands. I knew there was more to him.”

“That first day of searching,” said the deep voiced one, “that animal we were looking for must have been Warren. But what was his play at living in the Greatsergeant Keep?”

“Perhaps he was spying,” suggested Tlezjoy.

Varalam’s head shook. “He is willful as a demon. He lives for things precious like a pirate king. Perhaps he sails from city to city, pillaging rich homes but with the owners’ cooperation. Human women admire excitement.”

“Imagine having a play like that.” Tlezjoy said. “You would bed rich, beautiful women, live high, and leave when you are bored.”

“I would never be bored,” said Growly.

“What a prize. And the Inspector could not keep him.”

Mehzadapt rose and leaned out the window.

The three turned and looked up. The Inspector noted two fleeting looks; the narrow eyes and tilted heads of resentments from the Humans, and the Adactoid’s eyes twinkled of amused doubt, though that faded quick to cold. In normal circumstances, the Inspector would have played that he had heard nothing of their conversation. But with the desperate wrangling with captains, the strange anger among his crew, his own frustration, the loss of the Earl’s obligation, and now the dearth of comforting deference; all made his temper short.

The Inspector sneered: “I knew that he was the Earl of Weiquant. You know one spit of it. There is more to him still. But if my deputies insist on speaking free –“

The three looked around the empty sidewalk.

“ — and losing their demeanor. All of you go walk the Triumph and contemplate keeping your mouths shut until I say otherwise. When anyone asks, tell them ‘I walk to improve my discipline’. I will not have your willfulness known and ruin my candidacy. Go to your task.”

The Inspector immediately regretted mentioning his candidacy. He held his composure.

The Adactoid opened his mouth to protest, then thought better of it. The mens’ expressions did not even harden. They merely turned and walked down out of the yard to find a rickshaw to headquarters. Varalam straightened and strode after them.

Enthus, can I not trust anyone? I must go to the General today, before my deputies or my nerves unravel.

*         *         *


His stomach said it was past noonday, the room felt warmer and the smell of plaster was sharper. Fazgood was about to check with Warren on the progress, when the bracing behind the door gave a sharp bang.

The white door slid open, and stepped through a tall dark man in maroon. His strong block chin was tilted high, and beneath a tall forehead, brown eyes narrowed in flat appraisal.

The man’s voice was deep and melodic: “Fazgood. The mad Earl of Weiquant. I read your biography. I would not have assumed such things to look at you.”

Fazgood shrugged. “General Allotropic Greatsergeant. All of my disappointment in you comes from direct testimony.”

Greatsergeant nodded, quick smiling nods.

“Ha, yes. That amuses,” Greatsergeant spoke, but his eyes were piercing. “Considering your situation, I accept my disappointments.”

He waved at the room. “We can speak freely, if we speak soft. I ordered for no one to listen. There are lotcasters in the hall. They cast to determine your actions every few seconds. One shout from me, or one poor cast, and this room fills with something brutal. One shout.”

“If we can speak freely, I had wondered.”

“What do you wonder?”

“How long did you expect to roam the seas, and leave your wife with your family secret.”

The General smiled and folded his hands, relaxing. “What secret is that?”

“Ah. So we must still be circumspect for the casters. Then I ask: Why leave your wife with that object in the black trunk?”

A chuckle, more arrogance than mirth. “My wife is the cleverest, most splendid woman in the kingdom.”

“I would think you would want her as ignorant as the household staff.”

“You reveal your own ignorance. My staff knows about the secret passage. They suspect some sort of treachery, but swore to their ancestors who served my family that nothing would be told.”

“That is loyalty,” the Earl remarked.

“You may have noticed how grim they are. I think of them as an educational artwork. Like a sculpture of a dissected body. Their devotion to duty has sucked the joy from their lives. That is what loyalty to a lie wreaks.”

“Respiration would be no one’s fool.”

Greatsergeant’s eyes became sharp. “My wife is exemplary; I thought she of all would understand it, and understand me. I came to understand…the item…while very young, when I sneaked into that room every chance I got, and lay outside, knowing what it could do. I wanted to give her the same opportunity.”

Looking above at the latticework, Fazgood shrugged. “About that, I could shout about it to the guards just now.”

Greatsergeant waved a hand to the white door. “Speak clearly. If they do find what is in the trunk, what of the Concord? If you felt that revelation was an option, then you already would have done so.”

Fazgood made to look defiant, but did make to shift his eyes with uncertainty from the General’s gloating, flat gaze. He grumbled, pretending half-warning, half in boast:

“Indeed. You have me. I would not reveal. But there is a citizen who insists on knowing your business.”

“Who would this citizen be?”

“The man I was under obligation to. Scout Brigade Inspector Mehzadapt.”

“My family has a great many friends in the Scout Brigades.”

Then why did no scout mention this? Does the General seek to deceive me, or is he deluded?

“That,” the Earl enunciated, “would not be of any interest to Mehzadapt. There is a vote on for the new magnate, and the Inspector is ambitious. He wishes to know your secret and have you under his rump.”

“You have misguided him. I will set that right.”

“He had your captain beaten and tortured to get information about your wife. He wishes to leverage your household.”

The General’s smile faded. Many questions swam behind his eyes.

“My captain will account for his attackers.”

“If you go to the Inspector, the Inspector will believe you afraid and believe he has you.”

“I am a paragon. I already have him.”

He deludes himself. He turns from being friends with the Scouts to domineering his supposed chums. Let him delude himself more.

“Why do you think I was caught in the affair?” the Earl asked.

“Affections makes one careless.”

“To save the kingdom.”

Greatsergeant’s head was tilted a little, a pose of interest. “Our hero.”

Fazgood added, “Do not mistake me. I did not do it to save you.”

“That would be odd, to cuckold for the sake of the husband.”

“Indeed. Your wife and I would have had our dalliance, and I would have been away and all would be pleasant memory. Then I found out about your secret, then became under obligation to the Inspector, and I was compelled to stay.”

“You were under obligation because you were poor at cards or dice.”

“I was set up. The Inspector wanted to know any secrets lying around your home.”

“When you were arrested,” the General noted, “that was when Public Works dispelled any obligations you were under.”

“Out from under one rump, and under another.”

The General laughed, an open and honest laugh of relief. “My wife must have been so disappointed in you. She did let you see it.”

“She hoped I could destroy it, or render it useless. I opened the secret room, and the chest.”

“I am glad you did. Specifically you. A leader of experience and standing like myself. So you saw it?”


Greatsergeant’s smile widened, gloating, self-possessed. “It is so beautiful.”

Carefully, to coax the man along. “How so?”

“Power declares beauty. It is the most beautiful object in the kingdom. In the world.”

“She hoped that I could find a way to destroy it. It cannot be burned or mashed, but I did keep the secret hidden for the kingdom’s sake. I was trying to figure out how to solve the problem. Then you arrived. How did you discern me? The sympathy doll held to the end.”

“What you did with the doll was quite clever. You are a tricky one. To answer your question: I have many resources. I have close supporters and spies everywhere.”

The Earl made to be ignorant. “Did the judicial fellow clue you? Was it that captain who told you? That wretched little bloodpuddle.”

“It was foolish to go against me.”

Holding a retort, Fazgood thought, That should cover the captain’s betrayal for the moment.

So he replied, “I believe that now. But you’ve another problem with the Scout Inspector. He told me you are callow and stupid. I was foolish to believe him.”

“He said that?”

“The Scout Inspector believes your inherited title means you can shirk challenge.”

“I cannot help his ignorance.”

“All has been handed to you in the easiest manner. Those are the sort of things –”

Greatsergeant’s face darkened. “I have survived the most difficult life in the history of this Kingdom. And he believes there is challenge to being a Scout Inspector? To being a herder of vermin-herds?”

“You must be accustomed to such jealousies.”

The General puffed. “I will set the Inspector to the proper tack. As for you? I have heard the Public Works speak of this Broom nature. You will not be sweeping away anything in this city, mad Earl. Doubtless they know a suitable means of removing you from the Kingdom. I will keep my wife, and resume my place and family.”

“Why keep her? She seems miserable.”

The soldier laughed and whispered, “She loathes me. I keep her because she is the finest of the kingdom, and because she is mine to keep.”

“But she will not have a child by you.”

“She will.”

Fazgood sneered. “Or the most-beautiful-powerful comes out of hiding.”

“She is practical.”

“Abomination is quite an aphrodesiac.”

“She will accept the truth.”

“Because of that item, the Kingdom survives only through your tolerance.”

The General’s eyes came alive. “Yes.”

“You and Respiration will control the fate of the most powerful city in the world.”


“Rather than fight you, even the Royal Family will surrender, and give you and she immortality so that you may rule for all time.”

“Yes.” the General chortled. “There is only one other fate possible for my wife. Perhaps you would like to know what it is.”

The Earl made to listen.

“If it is as you say,” Greatsergeant said. “and I am surrounded, then my little secret will be revealed. My wife has known of it for over six years. She told no one. If the Kingdom survives the revelation, for her not to have told would be called ‘high treason’.”

Fazgood felt his sneer slip. “She had no choice. You put her in that circumstance.”

“Yes, I did.”

“They would determine her sincerity. That would be taken into account.”

The General’s smile returned. “Ten years ago, Prince Meteoric Prudence rearranged the entire officer staff of the Eleventh Naval Squadron. He even had two admirals imprisoned, and not even their family knows if they are still alive. No explanation was given. No one knows why. The Royal Family just does things. No one will ask, no one will question, no appeal will be heard by mortal ears.

“So,” said Greatsergeant, his brow creasing in mock concern. “If I am caught and revealed, she shares a great uncertainty. We had best insure that doesn’t happen.”

The Earl had the urge to leap off the stool and head butt the bridge of the man’s nose.

Fazgood gathered his composure enough to ask. “What would you want?”

“I want to move it to a safer place.”

And there it is. In the end, no matter how much anyone professes to despise me, they always have a favor to ask.

“I know a way …to transport your secret out of the keep. The same method can secure another place so it can be safe.”

The General leaned close. “How? The impercept vault is built too large for the doors. You are lying.”

“And fidelity braids are infallible.”

“Indeed. You are full of tricks. Yet why should I trust you? Why didn’t you move the secret already?”

“And put it where?” Fazgood spat. “There is no place safe enough from spirits, weather and prying. I don’t want it. Respiration was right to be concerned about future generations. I may hate this city, but I have met some useful distilleries here.”

“Tell me what you would do.”

“Creating an impercept is not difficult.”

The Earl shaped the dimensions of a box. “You need three identical boxes of proper size. You bring the boxes in the vault. You place the secret in one. The trick is the proper handling of the boxes. And some other items.”

The Earl stopped and pointedly placed his hands in his lap.

“This is when,” the General said, “you should remember the futility of crossing me.”

“You are going to try to do this yourself. You cannot. The handling must be done as a ritual. One misstep and the spirits notify Public Works.”

“That brings me to my last demand: where is your conspirator?”

“In the greatest honesty, I do not know where the Foofaloof is.”

Greatsergeant pointed to the door. “I will have those lotcasters determine you. It will take time, but I will have your Foofaloof.”

The General turned and walked toward the door. It opened without a knock.

Conscious of the audience, the General declaimed, “I will negotiate a release for you to make amends to my wife. As an act of civility. There will be guards involved. After that, that is for the Kingdom to decide.”

Fazgood bit back a mocking tone. “Ah. Bless you. Oh, and here is an incidental question: where are we taking the object in question?”

The door banged shut. The Earl listened, and he thought that very faintly, lotsticks and lotcoins rattled and rang.

He thinks he is going to kill me before he has to reveal the destination.

The Earl cast his mind to his familiar.

Warren seemed to be peering from within a roll of cloth. A swell of olive-dark hip and firm, dimpled rump eased into view. From the angle of the view, the front of her hip could not been seen.

Calzjha’s voice. “Citizen Dressmaker, is the purple is more flattering to my skin?”

Transfixed, Fazgood hesitated in asking: [Buying a dress, Warren?]

[Ah. My liege. It was considered that Calzjha ought to spend time naked before witnesses, in case we are followed and they are asked.]

[Yes. Prudent. I need you to turn away so I can concentrate.]

[Yes, my liege. She is such a strumpet.]

[I just had a lesson from General Greatsergeant.]

[The General was with you? What did he say?]

[In a great grouping of words, General Allotrope Greatsergeant told me that he is insane.]

[He could destroy the city and the Kingdom! How can you know he is insane and be calm?]

[Squire, I find having only one worry very soothing, despite its size. Have you notified the captain yet?]

[Obdurate sent word to us to meet outside of the Terhane Residences.]

[Keep to that plan. Find a pen and ink and I will dictate two messages. Be quick. We have to do this quick.]





9 07 2014

In the morning, the Earl and Calzjha were seen out the keep door by a maid. Calzjha smiled and nodded to the sharp-faced girl. She gave a sincere and warm smile; this puzzled the Earl so much that he turned to insure that he had just departed the correct keep.

Calzjha carefully resettled the basket so as not to wake Warren. The whistling was uninterrupted.

As they passed the corner constable, he nodded to Calzjha.

“A good day awaits you, constable,” the Foofaloof smiled.

At the end of the Square was the usual group of business folk knotted around the reading board. They turned and nodded in greeting.

The Foofaloof replied, “A good day awaits you, citizens.”

Pehzpersist was about to speak, but the citizens turned back to their reading.

He muttered to Calzjha, “You do not leave the keep. How do you know these people?”

Said she, “They are stern, but if you are cordial to one, that one tells others. You should practice.”

“Pleasantry thins the blood.”

“It does not.”

“It thins my blood.”

“You are jealous.”

“It just seems that way because my blood is thick.”

“There is a way you could gain more energy for pleasantry.”

“Ah,” said the Earl, “there is the deputy.”

The Earl took this opportunity to register with the scout assigned to watch the keep; that morning, across the square beside the tea vendor, stood the short deputy Tlezjoy.

The small, rope-muscled man wore a smile that was unusually malicious, even for that now-familiar crimeherd. This was despite a blackened left eye, swollen like a cranapple.

Walking across the square, the Earl noted that eye and especially the smile.

No risk of pleasantry here. This will be good, thick conversation.

The Earl bade Calzjha continue without him, and keep Warren’s basket.

He continued to the deputy and called. “Hail to you, deputy. Did your inspector do you ill?”

“That,” said the scout, “is not your concern.”

Fazgood sighed. “He just likes to decorate his subordinates? Does he do that often? ”

Tlezjoy flushed and his jaw clenched. “He did not ‘decorate’ me! The one who did…answers quite well for it.”

A low, mean chuckle.

The Earl bought a cup of tea and brought out his bottle of relish. He brought out from his pocket and unwrapped two ricecakes.

The deputy spat. “Do you live on that stuff?”

Fazgood paused, the question resounding oddly. “I suppose I do.”

He took the stopper in his teeth and tapped a thin gold streak upon a smooth, white cake.

“Deputy, I brought one for you.”

“I just ate.”

“You’d be surprised at how much easier it is now that you know the stuff.”

The Earl put the stopper back in, snorted, stuffed the entire cake in his mouth, chewed dryly, and swallowed. It all went down quite easily with a minimal gasp, like a well-oiled ember. When it arrived at his stomach, the heat flushed his veins like an old tziembroask.

Tlezjoy saw that gasp and sniffed. “If that is what the heathens eat in Adanikar, I am doubly happy to be Harmoniad.”

The Earl pulled the stopper out, tapped out relish onto the other cake and put the stopper back in.

“Adanikarese children eat this, actually,” said the Earl. “It makes their blood mean. What of your inspector’s rage yesterday? Did you lack something?”

Tlezjoy slapped the cake from the Earl’s hand. “I lack nothing.”

Fazgood almost punched the man for that slap.

“You lack symmetry,” interjected the Earl, pointing to his eye.

“You lack much more.”

His cackle reminded Fazgood of Birqmuirish tribesmen reminiscing about those had they outnumbered.

The Earl stooped and picked the cake from the ground. He felt sorrow for the loss of even that small dab of relish.

Said the Earl as he wrapped it again for later disposal. “Certainly not! My life is a continuing abundance of divine favor. But you would not know anyone’s favor, or so it seems.”

The laughter broadened. “You lack for luck; for time; for…all things. Go to your customary, aspirant.”

“I will report to the Inspector at thirteenth hour,” said Fazgood, wary.

“Expect to wait.”

Walking away from the deputy, that brute scout gave a derisive snort. The Earl returned the teacup, his mind frantic.

Reflected the Earl as he walked quickly, It’s bad when the cocky wait to brag.


At the fountain near the Arterial, he had a sip of water, which still made his stomach pinch.

A teenaged human waited paces away, the one who had just walked to the rickshaws, that dark Rahsic girl? From days before at the customary.

The Earl vigorously rubbed his nose, and muttered an imprecation to the alumni of the College. He found a handkerchief, rubbed again, and muttered another imprecation. Forty paces away, without realizing, the girl quickly gave her own nose a scratch.

Fazgood turned and dodged his way through the pedestrians down the Arterial. He walked through the Plaza of the Superb, the Army headquarters being at the south side. He looked around and saw no plughats. His worry heightened.

He trotted as if making to catch up with Calzjha. At the end of the Plaza, he found a thick knot of blue-coated merchants around the sonnet vendor from the other day. He hunched while walking and removed his hat and coat. He crossed into the nearest building, bade “official apologies” to all the textile clerks within, and exited the backdoor. He walked briskly down the alley back to the Plaza, until the alley ended and allowed him back onto the Arterial. He slipped his blazer and hat back on and trotted along the side of the Plaza to the Army headquarters.

Puffing, he slipped through the door. At her post was the same sergeant.

Fazgood covered his now-ink-cleaned fingers and said. “Ah! Sergeant! Do you remember me? Is Captain Childteacher available?”

She eyed him with some disappointment, remembering his spectacle from the other day. “He is not in his office yet.”

“He is normally in his office by now, is he not?”

The sergeant conceded, “I am certain he will be here in a moment.”

“But he is punctual?”

“I am sure he will be here.”

“I will return. I thank you.”

He slipped back out the door, cursing, cursing, cursing. He needed a rickshaw and quickly. He walked quickly to the corner. Was he followed? He did not see anyone.

There were no rickshaws. There was a crowd standing around a board reading something. He stepped into that blue-coated crowd, made to look at the posted text and thought: [Warren!]

[My liege! We have almost arrived at customary! Where are you?]

[The Inspector has snatched the captain! That idiot deputy was taunting me with it! I was just at the headquarters, and Obdurate was not there.]

[But…the Inspector would not dare –]

[The Inspector knows Obdurate cannot report being interfered with, or else everything is lost. Mehzadapt is capable of anything.]

[What can we do?]

[Tell Calzjha what has happened. Tell her I am trying to flush a scout into leading me. Have her turn and travel to the Lambent Concourse outside the Exhus Gate.]

Fazgood noted that the crowd had thinned around him. He pulled his hat down and found a rickshaw. He rode out of the Plaza, then stepped out quickly just before Lanthornmount Square, his blazer and hat in hand, his sleeves pulled up and his widow’s peak mussed so that strands hung into this eyes and his bald spot showed. He affected a stiff kneed walk and followed a knot of aproned stoneworkers into the square.

The guildsmen scuffed and stomped to the building in the southeastern corner, which was unremarkable. They began to point and discuss the refurbishment of the masonry. Fazgood stood along the wall with his hands on his hips and made to listen and nod.

Some thirty paces away, beneath the smirking demons who had not noticed the gathering shadows of the General’s impending sneak attack, Tlezjoy stood and scratched. The Earl waited for the tail to report her having been eluded.

The masons gave Fazgood some odd, confused glances, but ignored his interests.

The girl may try to find me at the customary, or she may come back here. My behavior was surprising enough; she has to come back and report that I am being odd. Where the —

The Earl saw a shadow fly past not three steps away, and he looked to the wall, tried to shake a brick within it, nodded that yes that held very well, good work that. He counted to ten then glanced over to the deputy.

Just in time to see the deputy pull the girl close and cuff her ear.

Praise to all gods.

The Earl swept imaginary sweat from his brow in time to see the deputy giving angry, lengthy instructions to the girl. She scuttled dejectedly back to the Arterial.

That is the walk of one sent to the boss for a mistake.

Waiting a count of ten, the Earl took the moment to think:

[The scout is flushed. I am following her. The Inspector is preoccupied today, and I think it to be with the captain. He would not trust any of his scouts with the interrogation.]

[We are in a rickshaw about to come to the Concourse.]

[Step out there; I may pass you while following her.]

At the thought of “rickshaw”, it seemed Zhazh made to play another joke. The girl hailed such a transport and climbed inside.

Damn all scouts to all hells! I will never keep pace without a rickshaw!

But he could not risk her trying to duck out of the conveyance to shake a skulker, had she suspected, or even out of habit. Knees aching, the Earl trotted.

He noted that her driver was a lanky Rahsic, but he knew better than to count even that piece of good fortune. The way down the hill to the Modus Gate made his running easier, and made the dark Human close his stride to keep control of the vehicle.

[Warren, she is in a rickshaw. The driver is a tall Rahsic.]

[We are waiting at the Concourse, my liege!]

[Watch for him!]

The Earl found a rickshaw. As he rode, he projected his perceptions into Warren.

From the basket, he heard Calzjha’s voice, loud and booming to the weasel’s ears: “I am very sorry, rickshawman. My friend will be here in a moment. I will pay to wait!”

Warren kept his gaze fixed upon the bounding, bobbing pedestrians and carts, rickshaws and wagons.

[My liege, there!]

The Rahsic plodded into view. Within the cart, the girl sat sullen.

It was that way that they followed the girl that last ri to a house in Cliffside-Bastles. Fazgood arrived not two hundred heartbeats behind.


*         *         *


Inside the dark bathhouse, the Inspector shook the girl at the door. “Ah! Did you? Did you lose him? If it isn’t scorn all of you give me, it is incompetence! Deputy!”

Just up the outside stairs, on the path before the bathhouse stood the hulking adact Varalam.

Mehzadapt said, under his breath, “I have been already too long away from headquarters. Hyek-kukuk will join you, and the two of you will track down the fellow that this one missed. Cornpudding will see our willful guest home. Come along, fool!”

None saw the small rustling not even a pace from their feet.

The Inspector swept along the grass-lined path, the skulk following in a grim procession.

Behind the Adactoid, the door creaked.

A feathery Exult head poked from the dark and took a deep breath. “I demand air! Cornpudding’s reek is smothering me. Has he gone?”

“The Inspector’s fury leads to more devastation back at headquarters.”

The Exult shook his hackles. “The magnate election has got him in a twist. And Bookwright and Tlezjoy going all angry. I tell you; all of this ills.”

Varalam nodded beyond the open door. “Did he spout information, or merely water?”

“I put him under enough to prune his skin, but he would not accept obligation.”

“Some are like rock and all drain over them.”

“He’s protecting a sweetheart. Older men would cut their losses. Old men would just die. If I had more time to crack him, I would. Still he’s to go with Cornpudding.”

The Adactoid’s expression darkened.

The Exult’s laughter became a light panting. “It’s better for you to ask ‘what shall I read for lunch?’ than to guess where Cornpudding takes his charges. Lunch matters. Ha!”

Popping a plughat upon his crest, the Exult hopped down the brickwalk. “Cornpudding is a deputy meant for herd-work in a windy field. Ha!”

Varalam stepped close behind. “Note your speech: you are more Adactoid than I today.”

“Perhaps we can get you to laugh like a Exult, Varalam. Without making the fledglings shriek with fear that is.”

The scarred deputy said nothing as the cackling echoed up the street.

Behind them, Fazgood stepped from behind the neighboring house. Calzjha walked from the one farther beyond. They slipped up the walk and joined Warren at the bath-house door.

[There is something rancid within, my liege. The deputies say the smell comes from one deputy.]

Fazgood tried the door and found it unlocked. He opened the door wide with a casual attitude.

The Earl’s shadow fell across a dark room. Laying on his back along a board tilted back was Obdurate. A stream of water fell from a cracked showerhead onto Obdurate’s cloth-covered face. Over the captain stood a round man. In his hands was his black plughat. His dark-haired, greasy head was tilted back, and his jaw hung open. The deputy made vague, gargling sounds.

The two entered, eyes watering at the stench.

Calzjha asked, “What is wrong with him?”

Fazgood said, “Tried to eat his soap, I imagine. See to the captain.”

They looked to Obdurate. He was tied to the board and drenched with water. A filled bucket was at the end of the board above his head. The Earl grew grim.

He turned to the deputy and seized the man’s shoulders. The Earl head-butted the man square in his upturned chin. The deputy cried out and fell back into the shadows. The gargling grew harsher.

Fazgood said, “If you will excuse us, we will take our friend and –”

Calzjha broke the brick foundation securing the ropes with two quick elbows.

“—be on our way.”

The gargling smothered into a low moan.

Warren popped into his head, [My Earl, I believe I recognize what is in the room with you.]

“Calzjha, there is a ‘what’ in here with us.”

Calzjha was already pulling the captain outside. The Earl skipped out the door and pulled it shut behind him. Weight thundered the wood.

A thick green ooze squeezed under the door. The wood smoked and sizzled.

The three limped away from the back of the house and into the quiet residential street. They looked back at the quiet bathhouse.

At the end of the path, Warren loped from the weeds.

[I saw people at their windows, my liege. We must hurry!]

Obdurate cried, “What was that? What in the idiom of the Concord was that?”

Said the Earl. “Be quiet.”

“What – what…?”

Calzjha soothed. “You must bear up. We are in public. Let me help you.”

“Those – those wretches tried drown to me!”

“Calzjha, seize him.”

She stepped close to the soldier and restrained his arm. Fazgood did the same to his left arm.

Fazgood whispered, “Hold your tongue. We are still not safe!”

“We cannot allow that thing to be on the loose”

“Yes, we can, because at this moment we are not in the occupation of ‘thing-killing’.”

“If the neighbors summon the police,” smiled Calzjha as if speaking idle chatter, “all is lost. Your bravery would have been for nothing. Just a little more strength. Think of Respiration.”

And Obdurate took a breath and gritted his teeth and kept quiet. Fazgood and Calzjha quickly sorted out the drenched uniform coat. The water merely darkened the maroon color, and fortunately was not noticeable.

Calzjha spoke loudly, as if in conversation, “What I admire the most about your love is her wit. Pehzpersist?”

“Yes. Yes. Her wit. And her resiliency. She is beautiful, as well. Is she not beautiful, Obdurate?”

Obdurate swallowed back a sob and nodded.

Warren’s head peeked from the basket and looked to Calzjha, [The Earl and I know of this sort of creature. All are safe from it now, except us.]

Fazgood muttered, “And to have us, it needs get in the queue.”

Beyond and away from the houses, the three walked as best they could to the bustling street corner.

*         *         *


At mid-day, the warehouse at the end of the quay lost all gloom. Instead, the sunlight reflected bright from the rainwashed brick. The building retained its simplicity, so that it gave one a chill as it reminded those viewing it of a bleached, square skull.

Cornpudding stood shadowed in the doorframe, eyes downcast.

From within the humid, rank warehouse, behind the deputy, spoke the Inspector:

“Your close friend is lacking discipline.”

Mehzadapt wanted to scream. Can no one do a proper task? No one? Three days from the vote, and my Magnateship or ruin lies with fools!

But he kept his voice low and consoling. Cornpudding was the last person in Harmonium that he could afford to lose.

The deputy scrubbed his swollen chin with the back of his hand. “When I am threatened, my close friend attacks. You – you know that.”

“So they gained advantage and the captain escaped.”

“He did.”

The Inspector said, “Do not worry for a moment. They know about your close friend, that is true, but we know about them. They cannot accuse you of anything, and there are many hours in the day. There will be busy hours, Cornpudding.”

“They could leave a slander with the police! Through a messenger! They would find me and kill me! There is no way I could withstand even a basic examination!”

“And who would lead the investigation into your behavior? I would.”

Cornpudding scrubbed again. This deputy’s confidence was most important of all, so Mehzadapt explained:

“The conspirators have to keep to their ruse. Because of that, everyone will just settle deeper into their shells, which makes them easier to retrieve, if we are patient.”

“Those two sleep in the keep. Trying to surprise both would be a problem.”

“Your friend gained on those two smugglers with no difficulty last year. Do you remember?”

Thin lips twisting, the deputy considered that.

“They are all more isolated. The captain sleeps alone,” the Inspector added.

“But within an army barracks! And he will never let himself be alone again. The captain will not go back to the canal. Inspector, how is it the captain appeared in the drain at the canal? He couldn’t have hidden.”

There is a secret entrance into the Greatsergeant Keep, you idiot.

“I am looking into that,” Mehzadapt said.

Mehzadapt had pored over the green pages of the book-plants from the brigade archives for Greatsergeant Keep and found a clue to such a portal. Notes of hasty construction led by a journeyman mason, followed by the remark “all accomplished within a fortnight, no details notable until builders can be found” (as the scout had written scores of years before Mehzadapt had been born).

If the entrance was not important, it would have been made known, or walled up.

That wretch Fazgood has been playing duncebird with me. He is shrewder than I had thought.

How will he avoid our next meeting? It would be slow death for him to appear; even slower suicide for him to delay. But he still must go to customary if he is to keep up his ruse.

The Earl has saved his captain, the money is free, and all may flee at an instant. But if Fazgood flees, he will be powder in a month from the obligation.

Not an hour ago, the Inspector had suspended all smuggling in the city. Let the other Inspectors contest it or argue for the embargo’s ending; he will gain at least an evening’s security, as smugglers would rather idle and play cards for the next few days rather than risk offending a future magnate.

The Inspector’s foot scuffed the ablewood floor.

“Cornpudding, go to the canal and watch. I will have someone relieve you in the evening. Have Tlezjoy approach.”

He watched the deputy trudge away to the knot of deputies on the quay.

Fazgood is cornered, but it will take too long to go get a good grip on him. The captain would rather die than be subverted. Now I set aside the protocol and do what I should have done; address the goodwife directly.

Tlezjoy walked from the group, stiff backed, neck cords straining, flushed with anger.

How does he imagine he is justified?

“Deputy,” the Inspector started low. “Can you avoid being arrogant and stupid for an hour? Can you manage that?”

The deputy’s face purpled. “I told you I don’t know how he found out! That skulk led him to the captain!”

“To whom are you speaking these loud, harsh words, you brutal little bungler?”

Tlezjoy tightened but said nothing.

“No, I imagine you let something slip,” continued the Inspector, louder. “I imagine that a wicked little childbeater like you might just blurt something. How is it that everyone in your life develops welts, deputy?”

The knot of deputies stopped whispering and took notice.

“Your parents, your siblings, your lovers. All of them filed charges upon you. How is it that man who cannot keep his hands open actually believes he deserves to be a deputy?”

The scouts at the Quay were now quiet with eyes averted. Longshoremen trudging beyond, started to trot to avoid the scene.

Anger spilled out of the Inspector. “Was I mistaken for placing trust in you, Tlezjoy? Should I have left you ready for your life paving the Royal Road, Tlezjoy?”

The additional insult of having his name hurled into the street with his crimes caused the man to tremble with humiliation.

Give respect to a disgraced man, and it will hurt tenfold when the respect is taken away.

“So I repeat my question: can you avoid being arrogant and stupid for an hour?”

The deputy’s face twisted. “Yes, Inspector.”

“Then do so one hour at a time. Get out of my sight and get to your post.”

Tlezjoy turned, chest heaving, and walked down the quay, eyes straight ahead. The knot of deputies watched him walk. They gave the Inspector bitter, sidewise glances.

Merhiazadapt looked back at them. They will not bungle this. Not with everything at risk. Not being so close to Magnateship. Not so close to being ruined.


*         *           *


They had explained to the headquarters staff and to the police that they found Obdurate in a canal, beaten by unknown persons. Obdurate had said that he had not seen his attackers. He was taken to the recovery ward of his barracks, where a physician rushed the young man to a bed to check for cranial concussion.

The Foofaloof, Pehzpersist and Brumpf rushed to the keep to convey the terrible development. Respiration held her resolve through the report of the attack to the shocked contemplators, through seeing those distraught guests away. As soon as the last was away, the goodwife begged off dinner with a headache, and retired, arms held close, the Earl surmised to keep her hands from shaking. The Foofaloof and Pehzpersist likewise retired, under the supportive gazes of the maids, which galled Fazgood.

In their room, Calzjha slumped onto the bed, her thumb pressing upon vitalizing points along her neck and chest. Warren struggled onto a bolt of combed cotton. The Earl remained standing, his eyes seeming to twinkle with anticipation.

“May I now know,” sighed Calzjha, “what was that thing that attacked us?”

“That,” the Earl whispered, “and my knowledgeable colleague agrees, that was –“

[It was a Dropsy of the Gods, Calzjha!]

“There you are, squire.”

[Like all creatures who are named and who know laws, the bacterium worship greater forms. A Dropsy of the Gods is an inconsequential sniffle to a god, but a ravenous parasitic assassin to mortals.]

Fazgood chuckled. “They are very wicked!”

“You are enthusiastic about this! About poor Obdurate being attacked!”

“Customaries and contemplations were wearing me down. Now that everything is in the open, I can complete the plan. ”

Calzjha peeped, “What of your plan?”

“The plan builds. Press your thumbs so very well, Foofaloof. I will say no more.”

Late that evening, Fazgood, Calzjha and Warren found Respiration sitting on her bed, hunched, feet on the floor, her dress removed to her slip. She sobbed without sound. When she noted their entrance, she let her head drop again. The Earl went to the window. With a finger, he pulled aside a drape and peered out, the glow of greennight making his drawn expression more haggard.

“Ah,” said the goodwife, low and bitter. “what is your plan now, nimblest man?”

Fazgood swallowed and drew a breath, then said firmly, “He has survived and he is safe.”

Ha and Calzjha explained the story, the first opportunity she had to hear it. They excerpted the green creature from the tale.

“He said…Obdurate said that he told them nothing. I believe him.”

“Was this in your plan?”

“Your lover knew there was danger. He would risk his life for you and he did.”

“That man was going to kill him.”

The three messengers looked to each other, again impressed and stung by her acumen.

“Yes,” said the Earl.

Respiration looked up at Fazgood, furious. “When are we to see our advantage in this plan of yours? After we are murdered or dead of exhaustion? Will our ashes at last be free? Or do we need more minute reduction?”

“By the captain’s own reckoning, this should be the last night of waiting.”

“Ah, you are going to abandon us. Your plan is failed and we are worse for it.”

“The plan is still in place. We will soon see its next step.”

“Leave. Just leave the city.”

Calzjha sat beside the desperate woman and held her hand. Warren slowly walked to the door and listened.

At the window, The Earl sighed as if about to bear a great burden, and said, “The next step begins. See now.”

They went to the window. Above the rippled rooftops, the yellow glow of Rezhalla was being blotted. A cloud rolled and swelled like coal dust in wine. Sparks of lightning flickered near its head. It rolled to meet the now-swelling Cumulid above the Citadel.

The goodwife deduced immediately.

“Enthus!” she cried. “All gods! He is here!”

Calzjha asked, “What is that?”

Fazgood looked around the room. “We have not much time. That is the Cumulid assigned to General Greatsergeant’s fleet. The servants may be here any second.”

“But isn’t that Cumulid supposed to be protecting the fleet from rogue storms?”

“Yes! Warren, have we gathered all of the cups?”

[What? Oh! They are still behind the secret door!]

“Stay sharp-witted, squire. You must go back to our room.”

Respiration whirled upon the Earl. “You knew? You knew he was coming!”

“How else would the General be hundreds of miles away from the coast unless he was over the ocean?”

“But,” Calzjha gaped. “to fly for thousands of miles on a Cumulid! How?”

“In its mouth or bundled in blankets upon its back! It makes no difference!”

“How do you know that is what he would do?”

“That is what I would do.”

“You would leave your fleet without any protection from hurricanes!”

Fazgood amended. “To save my hide!”

The goodwife nodded, numbed. “Yes. Indeed. It is what the wretch would do.”

Wind slammed the drapes open and whipped the candles into darkness.

Fazgood leapt across the room and seized Calzjha by the shoulder. Calzjha startled. The Earl slapped a hand across her mouth.

He said, “Go! Get to our room! And when they ask, you are shocked at all you are told!”

Calzjha allowed herself to be led to the door, and they quickly fumbled for the catch. A rush of moist air and the erstwhile woman was gone.

Fazgood quickly unbuttoned his shirt and cast it fluttering into a corner.

Behind the Earl there was a loud crackling and a flash of blue light.

He turned and called loudly into the storm. “What is this, my love?”

Backing away to the bed, perplexed by Fazgood’s sudden adoration, Respiration cried, “What do you say? It is an educated wind! Haven’t you seen one before?”

She then noted his bare chest, his stomach and chest which bulged noticeably from age. The disbelief in her face was such that it choked her attempts at inquiry.

Framed by the billowing drapes, another blue spark lit the air within the window. Within that brightness were peculiarly molded shadows. Fazgood closed his eyes and saw the after-image of that flash under his eyelids:

The molding of cheekbones and forehead, pudgy and ill-formed, turned toward Respiration. A puzzled, scrutinizing squint.

Fazgood sprang toward the bed and said, “I will save you, my love!”

Farther into the room, the bedsheets fluttering, there was another crack!

The face, the face of that named breeze given a soul, was an arm’s length across. It was looking directly at Fazgood.

The Earl turned, grabbed Respiration around the neck with the crook of his arm and kissed her full on the mouth. She shrieked against his lips and punched him in the jaw with both hands. The Earl secured her pounding left fist and brought his shoulder up to guard against her right. Fazgood looked at Respiration. Her eyes were wide with rage and bewilderment.

Fazgood felt the hair on his head and hands prickle as they raised.

Another crack! Respiration looked just over Fazgood’s right shoulder and screamed louder. The wind howled almost loud enough to hide the sound.

Then all was quiet and dark.

They both paused, lips crushed together, and noted the sudden relieved change. Then she started slapping the Earl anew.

He brought his head away and hissed. “Be quiet! It had to be done! Be quiet!”

“What are you doing? Get away! Do you know what that was?”


He let go of her hand and dodged a last punch. “An educated wind. From a Cumulid, a nanny of the atmosphere.”

“It will go and tell what it has seen to the Cumulids at the Citadel!”

“The General had his Cumulid send that wind to catch us out and…yes! See? This is delightful!”

The sparkling wandered and wafted over the square, its flashes brightening the greenight over the rooftops and toward the approaching thunderhead.

“’Delightful?’ Was that your plan? To destroy me, then escape?”

“No. I am not leaving,” Fazgood said.

“What? What are you talking about?”

Her face tight with rage, she stalked to the corner grabbed the shirt. “Put this back on!”

“I speak of your contribution! To the cause of success! You want a divorce? You wish to be away with your love, and not have him made a criminal?”

She listened, fists clenched.

He sat upon the bed and brought his foot up to remove a stocking. “Then it is you and I who are having an affair. We confess. You will be divorced. I will be arrested. What happens after will be no one’s concern.”

The left sock went flying. “If all is made clear…”

The right. “…and contrite, then there will be no determination to call us liars.”

He slid back upon the mattress to its center. “You never liked it much here, so you said. Obdurate will still marry you and share your burden, and you may leave to the provinces or even emigrate. If you want Obdurate himself to stay out of prison, then you and I had the affair, and we profess it loudly to all.”

The door opened, pushing the cloth at the bottom.

The most-senior maid named pressed into the room. She was followed by the younger maid.

“Goodwife!” she sneered. “ At last! Our master is here and this shame will be exposed!”

Called the Earl, “Did you citizens bring a bottle? We are a bit dry.”

“Night after night since the guests were dropped upon us, I have suspected. Oh you will be cast –”

The elderly maid’s expression plummeted into disbelief.

“This one? You disgrace yourself with this one? But…but I would have sworn it would be the Foofaloof! That one is charming!”

“Do you not have duties?” Fazgood gave Respiration’s hand a squeeze. Both of them flinched at the strange familiarity. “And spare us your rudeness?”

The maid snarled to her cohort, “Go to the Plaza, to the Public Works! Bring a despoiler! And the police!”

That maid retreated.

Respiration had gained the wind of Fazgood’s spirit. She asked, “May we dress, or shall we be deprived even that moment’s privacy?”

“Ah! How you will both suffer!”

The goodwife rose and walked to her bureau for a proper dress.

After a rather awkward wait, the younger maid brought a young man in the brown smock of Public Works. Behind him were two policemen. All were awed at the circumstance. With a properly respectful audience, the Earl felt his blood surge.

He stood and clapped. “Citizens! Let me make this sweeter! It will be revealed, so I reveal all: I am the Earl of Weiquant, Fazgood.”

Spat the maid. “What a flabby spawn-of-lies you are!”

“To think,” said the Earl with grief, “that I sang the praises of your gummy toast!”

“Was it paean?” asked the goodwife. “Or a eulogy?”

The Earl gawked at her spirit. “Ha! Indeed!”

“What is this?” called a voice from the hallway. “Pehzpersist! What are you doing?”

Calzjha, in full haughty dudgeon as the Foofaloof, slipped through the crowd.

“I am tendering my resignation, your highness.”

“What! Goodwife! What is this?”

Then Calzjha spoke Adanikarese in great, assumed rage, “What-shall-I-do? They-shall-determine-me-and-find-me-a-fraud!”

The Earl puffed and replied in same: “Respiration-and-I-insist-on-being-guilty! Tell-them-Respiration-and-I-are-in-love! The-story-is-easy! They-shall-not-look-farther!”

Calzjha whirled and howled to the throng, “He says they are in love! Treachery! Treachery!”

Fazgood rolled his eyes and bellowed in Adanikarese to make himself heard over the performance. “This morning, take all of our money and buy clothes! Be ready to flee! Seek the Birqmuirish! Tell them all!”

Calzjha wailed in Rahsic: “I have been deceived! My soul is torn asunder!”

The maids patted Calzjha’s shoulders with sympathy and cast vile looks to the Earl.

Warren thought, [With your permission, my liege….I believe I will stay in our chamber.]

[Granted, squire. I thank you.]

A policeman approached the bed. “Up, you! Goodwife, if you may rise?”

Respiration straightened and stood. “I regret hurting the Foofaloof so. He is a decent man. Tell me, officer: do they serve palatable meals in prison?”

“For you, goodwife, yes.”

“That will be a welcome change.”

“Ha! Indeed! She may use her spoon to actually eat, instead of tunneling to escape!”

This is how the stunned procession proceeded through the plaza to Public Works, as the clouds sputtered over the Citadel.


2 07 2014

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.

“I am.”

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.


Another Great Review for “The Flesh Sutra” PLUS “ERIC BLOODAXE” by DQD Comedy Theatre, 1994

28 06 2014

Another reader is absorbed by “The Flesh Sutra”. See what the editor of Pseudopod called “a beautiful, precision timepiece of unease.”



and here is another comedy sketch from My Long Ago,


written by Steve Mamlin, I co-star with James Dempsey, who went on to become James and The Breakpoints.

Sunday Video Flashback: “The Drawing Room” with DQD Comedy Theatre

15 06 2014

with Steve Mamlin and Candace Karch

Sunday Video Flashback: “Brain-Damaged Frank’s Used Cars” by DQD Comedy Theatre

8 06 2014

with Ron Foligno in 1993, I think.

Sunday Video Flashback “I Won The Chicken”

25 05 2014

From 1991 to 1994, I was in “DQD Comedy Theater”, a sketch and improv group based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. This sketch was written by a wry British friend named Mitchell Pearson.

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