4 06 2014

That night as the Malabar Flats Ferry crossed the Quand, three velveteened courtesans with retinues all gaped in surprise. The moonlight showed some few plug-hatted Scout aspirants who were frozen and staring. The moonlight showed throngs of blue-jacketed merchants clutching treasured permits for an evening’s loache, all of whom fidgeted as if under their mother’s gaze.

In the middle of the foredeck, Respiration Greatsergeant stood, her braids swept back from her face, the sheen cast upon her dark, flawless skin. Her black knitted shawl pulled back from the simple black smock, pulled back to show its blue-green sigil “Greatsergeant”, which was oyster-shell-embroidered in the thick-footed zhe-fherem lettering style allowed only to authority.

Her presence pressed all talk on the boat to murmurs.

Two steps behind Respiration, respectfully, stood Obdurate, who managed to stay at attention well in the slightly rocking boat. Beside the officer stood Calzjha, haggard in the blue suit of the Foofaloof, the Brumpf basket under her right arm.

Within that basket, frantic Warren received this: [Squire, it seems I have talked my way out of it.]

The weasel shrieked and banged open the lid.

[Calzjha, our liege lives! He says he has talked his way out!]

Calzjha whispered to the soldier and the goodwife, “The Earl is well. He has communicated so.”

Both sighed, but more so Obdurate, for he could not find in the Greatsergeant Keep a portable weapon more menacing than an old, oiled dagger tucked in his tunic. He had been in a panic that they would run into a jezr-ji team, but was relaxed a little on the ferry.

“Where is he?” asked Respiration.

Warren conveyed to Calzjha, [At the Wetward Gate.]

They looked to the dock and saw at the dock, at the head of the crowd between two figures in plughats, stood a smaller man. The lanterns of the ferry brought white light upon the dock. The Earl’s suit was battered from the day’s exertions. He grasped the scuffed toolbag and a jug. He favored his right leg from his earlier sprain. A welt dulled his left cheek. But gone from his eyes was the vaguedespair of that afternoon. Unseen by the deputies beside him, his dark eyes glittered with a barely-suppressed enervation.

[My liege!] Warren queried, [Are you well?]

[Do you mean these two? They are to keep me under lock somewhere.]

[They seem formidable. Are you certain you are well?]

[I haven’t felt better in months.]

The grimace was almost palpable. [You ate that poor crab’s body.]

[I did not, Warren. A taste was all that was necessary. The remainder, and even that bite was disposed of by a maid. My crab-madness is gone, thank poxied gods! But after the meal, I have taken a new obsession.]

[Ah. Should I pretend gladness, my liege?]

[I will understand if you do not.]

The ferry drew close. The crowds on the boat and the dock drew toward each other. The two scouts Varalam and Tlezjoy kept close. The Earl fidgeted.

Fazgood thought, [Quickly! We must create a performance to ease me away from these deputies.]

The ferry touched the rope bumpers around the dock. The rail was raised, and all on the boat made way as the paragon’s party stepped forward.

[Ah!] the Earl considered, [Calzjha must chastise me. Quickly! Tell her she is angry for my wandering away to gamble. She is to hustle me onto the ferry, and the –]

Respiration stepped forward and said to the deputies. “We shall accept him. You have my thanks.”

Fazgood blinked in surprise at her improvisation, then gave an abashed look and mumbled. “I thank you, Paragon.”

“You must be ashamed, aspirant!”

The command broke the air like a slap. Among those witnessing, some three dozen people on dock and boat, all of their breath stopped.

The Earl suppressed a glare, then cast his gaze down contritely. He whimpered. “Yes, paragon. I am! Indeed!”

“Indulgences are earned through honor and effort. That includes whoring.”

Fazgood snorted in umbrage at the chosen offense, but held his objection.

The deputies sneered.

Respiration swept a graceful hand. “Let us step away to allow the others to pass.”

She stood aside to allow the ferry throng to exit.

Fazgood nudged a deputy with his toolbag and cried. “What do you wait for? Step away! Step away!”

The scouts pressed themselves aside as the bauds and merchants left the ferry. Those accustomed to the Goodwife’s presence cast bemused looks at those freshly surprised. All grimaced at the presumptuous aspirant. Fazgood kept his face down in shame.

The Goodwife Greatsergeant looked to the deputies. “I thank you for your assistance. Your task is ended.”

Tlezjoy replied, “Our Inspector said that we are to keep him under our watchful eye.”

His right foot stepped onto the ferry.

“You may tell your Inspector that your task is ended.”

The foot, however, did not withdraw.

Said Tlezjoy, “Pehzpersist understands that he is to accompany us.”

Among the ferry, and among those lingering at the dock, all breath stopped again.

Respiration offered a hand to her left. “Then this good soldier…”

Obdurate stepped up. His uniform glowed in the lanternlight, the image of polite and efficient society. He looked upon the deputies with disdain.

The goodwife continued. “…will help insure that all have a greater understanding.”

Obdurate snatched the tziembroask bottle from Fazgood’s grasp. “This one will be no problem at all, paragon.”

[This is getting to be quite enough!] thought the Earl.

[Steady, my liege.]

Varalam pressed. “Paragon, is there a service we could provide? Our service could be to accompany you home as a show of our faith and support.”

“Your faith and support are taken close to my bosom and do warm my soul, good scout. Tell your inspector that his respect is a firm, dry stone upon which all can surely stand. I thank you. Your task is ended.”

Visibly moved by the praise, the Adactoid bowed. Tlezjoy pouted at losing an opportunity to torment Pehzpersist. He stepped back onto the dock and bowed.

A final ease of her hand and the ferrymen closed the rail and blew the note for the riverwhales to swim for the bank. The ferry moved away.

[She did play that well, Earl,] noted Warren.

[Respiration has strong nerve,] Fazgood agreed. [She flattered that Adactoid just so.]

The ferry ride back seemed very long. At the dock, two rickshaws were procured. Tense and exhausted, none exchanged a word or thought until the Greatsergeant Keep. The youngest cousin maid opened the door, eyes severe and mouth pinched with consternation.

In front of the maid, the Goodwife wheeled upon the Earl. “As your patron, I command you go to your room and rest for studies tomorrow.”

The Earl withdrew, with a last sidelong glance at the bottle Obdurate still held. He passed Calzjha. He thrust the toolbag into

Calzjha’s hands. Within its pitch-canvas, water sloshed.

Calzjha flushed and took the bag in her free hand.

To Obdurate, Respiration said, “Again, I am under some obligation to you, adjutant.”

She presented her hands. He held them in a polite acknowledgement.

“It is my duty, and my honor to help you, paragon.”

Calzjha and Warren watched, knowing the sublimity of that couple’s feelings. As Fazgood took the stairs, he made mocking faces of the subtle lovers.

The soldier departed. The Foofaloof declared a need for a contemplative walk by the river, where all understood it was to dispose of the unfortunate burden in the toolbag. The Brumpf accompanied the Foofaloof as a means of communicating in case of emergency. Obdurate noted the need for safety, and so swallowed his nausea at the task at hand, and also accompanied Calzjha on her task.

Respiration ascended to the contemplations room, where under the maid’s presence, they sipped tea, and stole glances at the waterclock. The Foofaloof returned at half-past the twentieth hour, set the Brumpf to return to their room, and declared the walk satisfactory, though Obdurate did gurgle a bit.

At the twenty-first hour, the women retired for the night. Calzjha withdrew down the hall to the room she shared with the Earl.
Calzjha found him sitting upon the bed; metal clacked in his jiggling left hand. He raised his right hand and dropped it toward a roll of fine blue wool cloth in the corner of the room. The center of the roll twitched. The end of a knitting needle joined others buried deep. In an open cask across from the door came a rasping snore; Warren was taking the opportunity to nap.

The Earl glanced at the bag in Calzjha’s hands and said nothing. He flung another needle deep into the cloth.

“Warren told me all,” Calzjha said. “You did not have to go get that crab.”

“Indeed? I did. It was part of my plan.”

They spoke in the pidgin that was familiar to them both, mixing Rahsic and Adanikarese.

She said, “You could have waited a day. You placed yourself at risk.”

The Earl rose to the bolt of cloth, and slipped eight needles from within the center of the roll.

“You act as if you are a bodyguard,” he said. “I thought I was traveling with a pilgrim.”

“You endured your cravings for months as we traveled here. One more day would have been nothing.”

Fazgood sat back down. “Why should I have waited?”

“You rushed and were captured. You always counsel patience.”

“My plan required swiftness. The Inspector had been seeking me. One day later, and that Inspector would have had me dead.”

Rattle, fling with his left hand this time, thump.

“Not with me beside you.”

“Ah! You would have been with me. If only I could share that certainty.”

“You always counsel patience! Why did you rush?”

“I have patience with my plans, not yours.”

“There is more to the world than just your fleeing it.”

“I have seen much of the world. It often requires fleeing.”

Rattle, flick, thump.

Calzjha sat on the edge of the bed. “I had to become a woman. This is an indescribable opportunity. This household has such influence. I have to help heal it, and Obdurate and Respiration are more receptive to me as a woman.”

Rattle, flick, thump.

“I know you don’t like me as a woman. But you are not attracted me when I am a man. You notice other women. Am I repellant?”

The rattling stopped.

Said the Earl, who shook his head. “You meant that question as a joke, am I correct? It takes me effort to get a door unlocked. When you tuck your chin and take a deep breath, entire castles open.”

Flick, thump.

“Are you jealous? Is that why you are angry when I am a woman?”

The Earl gave an aggrieved sigh. “What did you do with your testes?”

Calzjha sagged and accepted the change in conversation. “I buried them by a large tree just within Cliffside-Bastlements. Obdurate disposed of the toolbag. I note there are few animals in the city which may dig up my testes.”

“No animals who dig may live in the cities. That is part of the Concord. If Warren was even on set his feet on earth, there would be much scrutiny.”

Within his thick velvet, Warren raised his head and yawned.

“It is good that you have awakened, for –“

Warren fell forwards into the cloth, and back down into sleep.

The Earl sighed, [Chief Litigator.]

The weasel sprang up, eyes glassy, [Yes, my liege!]

“Before we meet with the others this evening, I must tell you of a change in plan.”

[You…you have changed plans? ]

“I am taking the curative of planning a betrayal and murder. No, not either of you.”

“A murder!” Calzjha said. “But you are no assassin!”

[You say that ‘death only brings more death, and brings mercy to those who deserve worse.’]

The Earl set the needles on the bed. “Warren, Calzjha, he lives. He flourishes. I will throttle him.”

Both were baffled.

“The youth who betrayed and murdered my mentors and set me upon my path. It is that very Inspector.”

Warren sagged into the cloth. [Fluxion.]

Calzjha hissed in astonishment.

“I knew the two of you would appreciate the circumstance. But the adjutant and the lady of this keep must not know. They would slip and find themselves on the Royal Road for keeping my secret. And Hrikinik sends his regards.”

[Of course he is behind this!]

“Hrikinik!” Calzjha spat. “You spoke with him!”

“Yes, and he sends his regards.”

“He did so merely to aid his masturbation. How did you speak with Hrikinik?”

The Earl related his discovery of Mehzadapt’s success, the cunning distillation of Fazgood’s murderous desire, and its placement in the relish. Warren was greatly relieved that tasting the moosecrab’s flavor was all that was needed to bring the plot to completion.

Fazgood laughed. “That is the best part: Mehzadapt believes my memory of him is gone.”

Calzjha’s face went dark with rage. “You wretch!”

Fazgood grimaced with exasperation. “Again, I fail to impress.”

“You dragged Warren and I across an ocean to risk our skins on a lie!”

“Steady your nerve, young lady.”

Warren affixed the Earl. [My liege, isn’t revenge a game for fools?]

“What are you about?”

[You had said “Revenge is a chump’s game for chumps who deserve lives of chumpery.”]

“I must have been drinking.”

[Wine, my liege. Wine always makes you philosophical.]

“Indeed. Take note of this legal precedent, squire: from this day forward, it is the law of the Earldom that I will take revenge to much applause.”

If thoughts could groan: [My Earl, I thought you had matured beyond despotism.]

“These are base times, squire. But…a moment!”

The Earl stood and made to be confused. “You…you find this motive of revenge more offensive than being dragged here so I may eat moosecrab?”

[We accompanied you so that you would stay safe. We thought you were going senile.]

“Which would you prefer, Chief Litigator, my foolishness or my health?”

[Of the two, it would be your health. But I would more prefer –]

“Only those two options!”

The Earl rounded upon Calzjha. “Warren prefers my health. What say you?”

“Yes, I prefer you healthy. In life there exists possibility. Such as: your reconsidering the murder.”

“Splendid! We are agreed that I am far better restored.”

“We knew nothing of murder.”

“You are not doing it.”

“You are no assassin.”

Midnight’s arrival was appreciated by all of the conspirators. Through stealth and familiar routes, all of the parties assembled under dark in the master bedroom. A white lanternette had been retrieved from the hidden room, was lit and placed upon the floor. The

Earl brought a length of blue cloth, which he placed at the bottom of the door to keep light from showing under it. Wrapped within it was the second bottle of caml-zre. Through the secret door crept Obdurate, who brought with him the tziembroask jug and the remainder of the first bottle of caml-zre, and for this was roundly commended by a certain other party. Warren was posted at the door hinge, and beside a gap in the placed blanket, to listen for the maids. Respiration opened and unfolded an ablewood vanity, and set five porcelain tumblers upon its counter. The Earl’s surprise caught her notice.

She explained. “Obdurate bought these this afternoon.”

Obdurate’s expression was restless and nauseated. “Yes! About that! Fazgood, you must leave Harmonium. Every lotcaster in the city is searching for you, and they already know so much. Please escape.”


Obdurate described his infiltration of the Terhane Residences, and his eavesdropping upon the lotcasters.

A curt nod from Fazgood. “Sharp work. You told me something that will preserve us all; tomorrow we avoid these lotcasters running around.”

Surprise lit the adjutant’s face.

“But,” added the Earl, and rubbed his aching knee. “in all things there is a time to flee. We have not reached that time. You are still bound to that fiend General. I am bound to the Inspector. There is a way out for both you and I.”

He continued. “You suggest that I am here through selfishness. I disagree.”

His expression tightened at the memory. “The scouts had cornered me over my dinner at a conference house. Before me was a porcelain plate, a bottle, even the sharp edge of the crab shell at hand. I could have used any to aid an escape.”

A glance at Calzjha. “I could even have killed one of them.”

Calzjha and Warren both noted the remark and stiffened.

The Earl continued. “I might have escaped the room, perhaps have escaped the Due and even Harmonium.”

Calzjha muttered. “That would have left me captured and interrogated.”

Realization seeped into Respiration, and her lover also cast his eyes down.

She opened the bottle of tziembroask. “No amount of resolve from Calzjha would withstand that scrutiny. We would be found out.”

“Indeed,” said the soldier. “All would have been lost.”

She poured cups of tziembroask. She offered them. “I have tried this before, many years ago.”

Calzjha snorted. “It is not to my taste. I will enjoy a little caml-zre.”

“Would…your litigator care for one?”


[I thank you, Goodwife. I would appreciate some caml-zre with water.]

Obdurate gave a hopeful look and accepted his tziembroask. “Tziembroask is so bitter, but in ‘The Nimblest Man’, it is written you make concoctions with this liquor. I had thought that must brighten its taste, for you drank so many of them.”

The Earl took his cup with a sharp laugh, then realized Obdurate was serious. Still smiling, Fazgood looked to Calzjha. “Are any of your perfumes worth mixing for flavor?”

“You will not.”

Respiration waved a hand to distract the argument. “Fazgood, what did you tell the Inspector?”

“I had to tell Scout Inspector Mehzadapt that the testicles in my toolbag were not mine. He took that for granted.”

“He saw my testicles?” Calzjha was affronted.

The Earl said, “I had to prioritize. He knew from sight that they were fresh. I was tempted to say I had collected a debt, but he would have asked confirmation from the garnishee. So I told him of you, Calzjha, and of your race. I told him that you were not from the Ijkallas. You should have seen his smugness! A smug ape even as a child!”

“How did he react?” asked Obdurate.

Fazgood scratched his shin. “He had discovered a ruse that had fooled a Mezzo-Barritone of the highest judiciary. Even that knowledge did not satisfy him.

“I let him threaten and bluster and so bought myself time for a very good lie: I told him that Calzjha and I had served as guides for the general in the Ijkallas. We had been partners with the general in some diplomatic irregularities, like extorting cooperation from the Ijkallan leaders, and using Ijkallan enchantments to cover out activity. Then Calzjha and I found some more of the general’s irregularities in the quartermaster accounting. With that knowledge, we decided to play our ruse in Harmonium to leverage both the general’s shamed wife and his accomplice, the adjutant.”

The soldier groaned. “A Scout Inspector believes I am an embezzler?”

Calzjha gasped and marveled. “You invented that at that moment! Surrounded! Did he believe it?”

“The opportunity to gain advantage on a General and a paragon is so heady, he dare not believe it.”

Respiration sipped her tziembroask. She did not make a face, but did look down into the cup, perturbed at the flavor.

“Something puzzles me,” she said.

“Perhaps it could wait,” said the Earl. “Obdurate, what if the tziembroask were mixed with the caml-zre?”

Obdurate was still stunned.

The Earl reached for the caml-zre and peeled the wax seal.

“How is it that the Inspector took interest in you?” asked Calzjha. “Does he know you?”

Fazgood considered, then nodded. “I had a portion of my soul distilled, to obscure my memory of my home, and thus my identity.You’ll never imagine where my identity was secured!”

The adjutant looked up with an expression of unease. “In your relish.”

Fazgood deflated.

The soldier told of his numerical discernments, and his conclusion that the Earl had distilled himself. Both Calzjha and Respiration gave the young man flattering admiration.

Despite his jealousy at the attention, the Earl nodded. “That is a remarkable method.”

A thought took Respiration. “Something else does not seem right.”

“Would you like some caml-zre in your tziembroask, Respiration?” asked Fazgood.

“Why would the Inspector see you off into public? What assurance did he have that you were not telling a profound lie about everything, and that you were ready to ‘disappear into the night?’”

“My superior convincing.”

“What other than that?”

The Earl nodded with appreciation. “Ah. You have me.”

He set his cup upon the floor along the outside wall and asked, “Have you seen an obligationist’s work?”

All were dismayed. Obdurate and Respiration shook their heads. Calzjha clenched her fists to her temples. At the door, Warren wailed.

[My liege! No!]

The Earl said, “one’s word and nature, become bound to the obligationist. If the one so obligated were to disobey the obligationist, that one’s word loses value. As does my material. You may see.”

The Earl stepped to the lanternette and pulled up the cuffs of his pants. Three small, raw ulcers had bloomed upon each white shin.

Fine gray dust cascaded upon his shoes.

He raised his eyebrows. “Already, I become undone. Because I disobeyed and left the company of his deputies.”

Shocked, they drew close, even Warren, and examined his legs. Respiration put her hand on the Earl’s arm.

Respiration rose and stood beside him. She whispered, “What do you mean?”

“Remember at the ferry, that the deputy spoke of my ‘understanding?’”

“I…I thought he was merely imposing upon you.”

“No, I had been ordered by the Inspector to stay with those deputies. That big Adactoid was waiting for me to insist ‘I must go with the deputies, goodwife. It will be quite alright.’ I found those two boring and possibly brutal. I prefer this.”

Obdurate touched the ulcers. “But you must renegotiate his command! You will crumble into dust within a week!”

Warren added: [The only ways out of an obligation is to fulfill it, for you to be imprisoned, or for you to die!]

Fazgood let down his pantlegs and retrieved his cup.

The Earl sipped and swirled his cup casually. “True. Tomorrow, I will be only a little gray and spotty. I will seek out that ape Inspector and renegotiate my behavior. This will heal.”

Calzjha said, “But if you plan to kill him –“

“I could think whatever I wished without consequence. It is the action that causes the undoing.”

“What have you done?” Calzjha’s eyes were wet.

“Will you keep quiet!” hissed the Earl. “What did I do? I ensured the Inspector’s trust. All he needed was to confirm that there was something to my story. I assure you he would have killed me to frighten all of you, then had all of you likewise obligated.”

The Earl pointed at the hidden door. “With that little charm, Mehzadapt could obligate the Royal Family.”

In that close, humid room, all chilled.

“He had doubts when I left him,” said the Earl. “Doubtless he is belaboring his lotcaster to confirm the conspiracy I created.”

[So he is chasing his own shadow.]

“He is a crime boss. He lives by lies and threats. You should meet the fellows he has made his deputies. I remember that Scout

Deputies are supposed to be chosen as stalwarts and examples. Mehzadapt’s deputies are worse citizens than my subjects back at the earldom.”

[Did the deputies try to kill you?]

“All they needed was the command, squire.”

[Then they are not worse than your subjects: your subjects tried killing you many times on their own.]

“Yes, true.”

Said Respiration, “At the dock, that skinny Therihe had a smile like a wild dog. And that Adactoid looked like doom.”

“There was at the consultory this one fat, crafty fellow who stank like eggs, and went terrified around alcohol. He got me to wondering …”

Warren turned from the door. [A rotten egg smell? A terror of alcohol?]

“They sound like pitiful associates,” remarked Calzjha.

“They are a bunch on their last chance, and Mehzadapt makes them his deputies. He had to fight them a little too. Give me a splash of that caml-zre.”

“Poor discipline,” remarked Obdurate as he poured.

“Of all, a soldier would note that.”

Warren quickly turned back to his duty at the door.

The adjutant said, “Poor commanders promote beings they can control. Good commanders promote those who inspire the best.”

The Earl swirled the liquors in the cup and sighed, remembering his own personnel problems over his many careers. “Indeed. But now comes your moment to inspire, adjutant.”

“Truly? What would I do?”

“I will tell you, but you must have faith in me.”

He sipped and puzzled over the taste. “I had faith in you until I drank this.”

“Ignore the drink. The only way out of this is for you to sympatile the General in confidence. Make the message as secret as possible, but he must receive it quickly, hence the sympatile. You are to tell him that you suspect his wife has made him a cuckold.”

“What?” said the young man.

“Mind your cup.”

Respiration whispered, “You are joking.”

The Earl took the tziembroask and added another splash.

He sipped, and his face hardened with anger. “This has boiled my blood for the last two days, and I have kept my mouth shut. Now listen: You have brought me in to resolve this problem. You have read that god-poxied book –” he slipped into Adanikarese at that word “ – and know all I have done. There is a path out of this situation. At the end of that path, you will have each other, and the kingdom will be safe. I cannot tell you the path because the fewer who know, the easier to keep secret. The circumstance is going to get ugly. If you heed me, you will survive. If you do not heed me, all of us are doomed.”

Respiration nodded. Obdurate took a breath, then held her hand.

Fazgood insisted. “If I lack your cooperation, I might as well go to the Citadel and tell them everything, for that is what will happen anyway. Do you understand?”

“Do you have a plan?” asked Calzjha.

“Yes. This is the first step…”

The Earl told the adjutant. “You will sympatile the General. You will tell him that you suspect she is taken with the new guest from Ijkalla. Say that you overheard the guest boasting to her of being a magician. That he knows of a curse and knows how it can be destroyed and the Kingdom saved. You are puzzled by what he meant by that. Understand me?”

“Yes,” he said with resignation. “I must play a fool.”

The Earl said with annoyance. “Which as Calzjha will tell you, is the most challenging role.”

“Just dither. You dither well,” Calzjha smiled.

“It will not come to lying face-to-face, not yet. If the General believes you know any details of that curse, we are all doomed. And if he corners you and he gets something out of you, say you know nothing else and ask questions. If you have to, admit to a small lie to hide the truth. He will have some barking left, but your questions will bind him up.”

“But my husband is suspicious of everyone.”

Said the Earl, “Give him only the information he asks for.”

“This is like in the book,” the soldier took a breath. “When you were instructing the new spies for the Three Cities.”

The Earl pondered at the mention of the book, then: “Also, you can do some open duty for your country, and send the lotcaster college this message: the Scout Brigade lotcaster was in the Foreign Due. The lotcaster was a Booloob named Reedtickle. I doubt he had valid permission.”

“I’m certain he did not.”

“That will bind up our Inspector. When you are finished, tomorrow tell me everything. Remember all details.”

“I can do it.”
“Then, our regards to the Kingdom,” Fazgood sipped. “And to dead friends.”

All held their cups in both hands and nodded. The mood grown reflective, they drank in silence for another round. Warren lapped at his serving only twice, methodically, five licks each.

Her second tziembroask finished, the lovers looked to each other. With the speed of youth and ardor, without anyone’s notice,

Obdurate had already taken off his coat.

Noted the Earl. “I take my leave.”

All bade him farewell.

He added, “Tonight should be pleasant. Blood heats when pressed by a sword.”

Calzjha gave a smile, and waved farewell again.

The tziembroask had warmed Respiration so that sweat sheened her dark neck and brow.

[Are we safe to exit, squire?]

[Yes, my liege.]

They opened the door just wide enough to allow their passage.

[This has been an exhausting day, squire.]

[Will you sleep, my liege.]

The Earl scratched. [By the time I fell asleep, they would be finished.]

[That is doubtful, my liege. Last night, they went well past the third hour!]

[Past the third hour? Such is youth.]

[Actually, it was Respiration. Obdurate was enthused, but the lady was –]

[Warren, I do not need to know this.]

[Ah! Yes! My apologies! That was –]

[You are tipsy, squire. I will keep the confidence.]

At the top of the stair, Warren looked back at him. [My liege, are you well?]

[I am well. I am not so tired as I thought. Why don’t you sleep? I’ll sit here with my tziembroask.]

[If that is allowed, perhaps I will just stretch out.]

The Earl graciously set his blazer upon the floor. Warren lay upon his side and drowsed.
Fazgood sat at the top of the stair, forearms atop his knees, cup beside him to his left. He looked down the dark hall, looked up at the bricks on the ceiling, and began improvising upon his plan.


28 05 2014

On the lush green playing field of the Terhane Residences, Obdurate watched beings in yellow robes ran through a gamut of beings in red robes. A small yellow ball skipped along the grass, clacked along by strange-curved sticks held by the robed players. At intervals, all would stop, then ignore the yellow ball to walk purposefully in seemingly random directions.

Throughout, more robed figures holding banners ran through the pearly-pink arches and onto the playing field beyond these, the guest residences of the Royal Family. The banners ran in circles, the ribbons swirling around each other into a red and yellow eddy. They broke away to the four corners of the room. A shout from every throat began the play. A wicker ball ablaze with red ribbons flew from one end of the room. The standards began running around the borders of the room as another yellow ball broke into play.

Obdurate struggled with a basket of the personal property from the army lotcaster’s work-alcove. He could have sent an aide or a messenger to deliver the belongings. But the night before at dinner, Fazgood’s suspicions had aggravated Obdurate’s guilt. His anxiety over Respiration’s fate was so heavy that he could hardly breathe; he had to come here to prove the Earl’s suspicion was baseless.

From up the near sideline, a young woman trotted, flushed and sweaty in a yellow robe, and confronted the officer. Obdurate explained his business and proffered the basket.

The young woman nodded. “I’ll see that she gets her property, Captain. Set it down, sir.”

“Do not trouble. I can give it to her myself.”

“You are not allowed to enter further, captain. The Masters of Lots have closed this. Members of the Great College only.”

Looking for a clue, Obdurate turned his attention to a rousing yell from the court. “I have heard this is a complicated game.”

The woman’s attention had been drawn to the yell, and was cheered by the obscure event.

She laughed excitedly. “Yes! It is the first time many of us have played it since school days at the Great College.”

Obdurate considered the army lotcaster’s puzzlement from the previous morning.

He ventured. “This is unusual to be playing such an elaborate game above all other responsibilities.”

“It is a Therihe tradition that creates good fortune and helps banish evil and discord. We are playing to keep the tradition.”

“Pardon my question, but I seek to understand. Why do you play now?”

Her enthusiasm collapsed. His eyes actually focused on Obdurate’s, then glanced away. “It was…mandated…”

“And you play to keep the traditions.”

“Yes, captain. Indeed. It is as you say, to the keep the traditions. You really must go, Captain. Please excuse my abruptness, but I must get back.”

“Ah! Yes! Indeed! I thank you!” Obdurate said from reflex, angry that he could not find a way to press his advantage and learn more. He turned and walked back up the lawn to the empty, narrow stands.

Empty stands. Banishing evil and discord. The only one who could mandate every lotcaster would be the Masters of Lots. Above them is only the Royal Family.

He remembered Hakek-Akakel from two days before, the Exult giggling over the navy’s lotcasters being brought to find violators of the royal custom at the Eldest Daughter’s Gate.

He glanced back and saw the young man trotting away down a side of the field. A man in a yellow robe was hobbling toward him waving for help. Obdurate looked around the field; perhaps there was some sort of clue to calm the rising panic in him?

Obdurate noted an alcove on the other side of the entrance, where a group of lotcasters had gathered.

His reflexes screamed, Be obliging! Do not snoop!

But, oddly to him, he remembered ‘The Nimblest Man’, where Spymaster Fazgood walked along the streets of the Prevaricate’s capital, surrounded at every turn by twisted foes.


The Earl had related:

“All is a walk in the glade,

from demon castle to Unnamed crypt.

Nonchalance is the order, for you are caught

Only when

you are imprisoned,

And not even then if you convince them otherwise.”


This emboldened the officer to pretend to note a detail upon the lawn.

He practiced his alibi: I noted a flower and wondered about it. It wasn’t there at all! What is wrong with my eyes! So sorry!

It was so that he walked up to the enclave.

All the backs, yellow and red were turned toward him. There was an older woman, another flushed Therihe of about sixty graying years, who was presiding over the discussion. A sheave of brown foolscap trembled in her thin fingers. If Obdurate stepped forward just so, he could use a tall Human in yellow and a Booloob draped with red ribbon to block the older man from seeing the officer’s eavesdropping.

Said a woman, “I tell you! The problem is with the interpretations! The players are properly prepared! All fouls and infringements are declared and translated!”

The yellow back giving Obdurate cover shifted, and an arm waved. “The problem is with the gaming! The signs and behaviors are holding true to the participants! Every fumble, stumble, cheer, shout, every variable is considered in the definitions and twice-confirmed! Some player or proctor has not been properly cleansed!”

“If the participants are tainted, then we would have no syntax at all!”

The older woman said testily, “But what of the syntax?”

Paper rustled. “‘The Comet is throughout every neighborhood!’ ‘The Comet is known by every citizen!’ We are back to the days of oracle vaguery.”

A younger voice protested. “The police told us that three beings gained entry, one appearing as a widow, another as her daughter, and another as an animal. We deduced that The Comet is a soulful mortal, as anything without a soul or immortal would have turned up during the customs casting.”

“Indeed!” said the yellow back. “That rat is –“

“Yesterday’s castings confirm that The Comet has two associates: one is a soulful mortal who is of a race not from the Kingdom, and who can appear as a beautiful young woman.”

Obdurate’s mind cast to Calzjha, who claimed some startling abilities the night before. The officer’s stomach sank.

“The second associate is a soulful creature of great intelligence, who can appear as a rat.”

All of Obdurate’s reservations broke into a flood of anxiety.

Oh Exhus. Exhus, what have I done?

The yellow back declared. “I tell you it is this Rat who we should be concentrating upon. I am certain that creature is the leader.”

“The Comet is The Comet,” said the older woman. “That being is the one the spirits say is the most dreadful of the three! The Lotcasters in the Principality cast The Comet thirty years ago, and what appears?”

All hissed. “The Marvelmeme.”

A whimper escaped Obdurate’s throat, The Marvelmeme!

Thirty years before, that terrible creature had awoke from some sort of dormancy, oozed through fissures in the mountain rock, and slowly convinced two thousand ri’s worth of land to become a living wall of rocks, trees and embedded beings. Radiant Semantic, the third Royal Prince, fought and transformed the creature into basalt, saving the day, but unable to save the hundreds it had absorbed.

I have placed Respiration in the same house with the Marvelmeme!

But the older woman had been speaking!

“– not asking the correct questions. If we cannot deduce this, we will waste time trying to get the Jezr-Ji to agree to new vocabulary.”

The Jezr-Ji?

A Booloob’s quaver. “What can be mortal, yet permeates all places and soulful beings?”

Obdurate sucked his lips to keep from exclaiming, A dusk thicket tale! Through that story, everyone knows the Earl! Because of that story, the Earl is everywhere! The Earl’s exact location is lost in the fog of familiarity!

The older Therihe thumped a shoulder and pointed at the game. “We will change the players at the rising of Minque. Summon the senior students from the academy to aid us.”

“If we do not know what the nature of The Comet, what use is the game?”

“Perhaps we will be lucky and the banners will touch one who knows –-“

Obdurate staggered away, reining the blind run that seized his feet.

The Earl was right! He must be gone tonight! He must be gone now!


*         *         *


Around the Earl, the inn bustled with patrons eating their dinner. Tables were crowded with a heartening babble of languages. The air was thick with smokes and the smell of spilled liquors.

He tried to summon a thirst for tziembroask, but failed. The innkeep of the Three Bellflowers slipped through between the tables to greet the new arrival.

Peering at Fazgood’s burden, she asked, “What have you in the cask?”

“A favor for which I will pay! I know you are busy, but have you a tight steaming pot and a corner of an oven I may use?”

Her head cocked with puzzlement. “Our cook would find it difficult to work with another at her elbow. We are serving dinner. Would you like to know what she cooks tonight?”

Fazgood set the cask on the table. “I am sure it is delicious. All I ask is for a pot of water, an oven, and an hour’s time. I would feast on all that is offered, as long as I can try my hand at cooking these.”

The cask was opened and crabs revealed.

“Good sir! We are serving oyster stew this evening!”

From up the kitchen steps a waiter struggled past with a blue porcelain pot.

Damn all of this! I will have my meal!

Fazgood resisted snarling, and picked the chest up.

“Let us ask the cook!” he crowed, and he hobbled down the stairs with the goodlady close behind voicing protests.

At the bottom of the stairs was a brick room with blazing fireplace and ferocious heat. Two young humans, bald-pated and arms shaven, shucked and chopped oysters and peeled crayfish.

Behind a long stove of red porcelain and enamel, a woman banged a ladle on the side of a bubbling pot. She looked to the intrusion.

“The residences are upstairs!” she roared.

Fazgood slammed the cask upon the floor. “Cook! You have earned a blessing! For yours is the only kitchen in the entire of Harmonium trusted by the pallet of the Great Foofaloof of the Ijkalla Islands! Tonight, you shall cook for the Foofaloof and that respected paragon, the Goodwife Greatsergeant! The Foofaloof insists that I provide all due assistance to aid your artistry!”

The cook goosed into amazement.

Always flatter artists, noted the Earl.

It was this way that the corner of a stove procured, and a true cook swayed to the cause. The cook procured a pot as he unpacked the crabs. He tucked the antler away within his jacket.

The cook examined the crabs and deemed them passable. She sniffed the spices and found them wanting, to which the Earl demurred humbly to superior knowledge. The relish bottle! The cook picked it up in her huge, calloused hands.

The proprietress cooed. “Such skillful glasswork!”

The cook held it to the cookfire’s light and squinted. “What is in it?”

Fazgood forced a smile through his trepedation at the bottle’s handling. “It is a rare relish the Foofaloof enjoys!”

The cook asked, “May I taste some?”

“I will ask the Foofaloof.”

The Earl kept the written recipe from the shopkeep well hid in his blazer. The pot was set to boil. The cook set to a simple mixture of her own herbs, sea salt, and vinegar. The Earl slipped the five crabs into the pot, and the antler within the five crabs. The cook poured her mixture atop of all and the lid to the shiny blue pot tightly sealed.

She said, “Crabs boil in one half an hour. The Foofaloof and the paragon will not wait long.”

The Earl blessed the goodlady proprietress and the cook, and the cook blessed the Fooflaloof, and all swept away a tear of joy.

“Let us retire to the dining room,” said the proprietress.

“I would be here when you –- what would be the word? Decant?”

“Ha!” laughed the cook. “Decant crab like a liquor! All the crabs will do is steam and steep in a pot! There is no need to fret! I will call when the pot is opened!”

The Earl and the innkeep stepped into the noisy dining room. A maid called the goodlady away, and Fazgood was left on a stool to rest his aching knee.

Indeed, he mused. What a day of activities.

He let his mind to wander for a moment, feeling comfortable with the slackness.

I wonder what my life would have been like if I had not had to look over every crowd I found?

That was a bad question, for it set his mind to wandering more to spite him. He noted a group of five merchants slurping soup, laughing, with no need to guard. There was a time he would have picked their pockets for spite.

He assessed his situation.

I still have the knife, he considered. I have money. I left the skullwarmer at the keep, but there are weapons at hand all over in a dining area.

I tossed the false toolbag. That was a mistake, but it would have been more foolish to keep it. Should have hidden it. I was followed. They stole the toolbag. Calzjha can be traced in a heartbeat with his bodyparts to guide whoever has the bag.

It would take them at least a half-hour to arrive if I called Warren now. Calzjha is gelded and not yet healed. The goodwife and that captain would be useless. Whoever has that toolbag will roll them all up rather tidily.

The Earl kept close to the wall. He hunched away from the front door. He glanced around. The rafters. The brick walls. The good-natured babbling creatures in civilized clothing. Their voices crashed his ears. All squeezed upon him.

The door. Was there someone at the door? Someone who just ducked out?

The proprietress, near the door. She was staring across the room at the Earl then set to chatting with a sudden wide smile with a table of diners, a grevious look in her eyes, the unmistakable sullen guilt of an informant.

If anyone asked for me, she would have to tell or suffer.

The crab is in the pot. Capture is outside the door.

A moosecrab. I’ll be killed in my home, a home I long ago foreswore, over a moosecrab.

He considered, weary, Be killed over that as over a pile of money. With money, you die hungry.

The Earl felt a nudge at his shoulder. He spun.

The cook said, “Your crabs are done. I was about to put them out.”

“I am sorry. I was startled.”

He motioned for the innkeeper. “Did someone ask for me?”

Her face was all blank innocence and eyes unblinking. “Were you expecting someone to ask?”

I thank you alumni, thought the Earl. She reveals The Tells of Treachery Numbers One, Three, and Eight.

“I’ll need a room upstairs to eat. Away from the others.”

The goodwife remembered to smile. “Shouldn’t you be taking the food to the Foofaloof?”

“I will be taking the pot to them,” he replied. “After I eat.”

“You should go quickly then! The pot will cool, and the flavor will dim!”

Said the Earl. “I am famished. I would like to take the pot and eat my crab upstairs.”

“You should eat your meal with your master.”

“He is a forgiving soul. I note that no waiters have gone upstairs.”

He pulled out all of the money remaining in his pocket. The sheaf of specie was still thick enough.

“I would still be on my way quickly.”

The goodwife’s smile ceased its painful stretching.

Added the Earl. “If I have visitors I can receive them there.”

She shook her head, protesting visitors are best received at home, but her eyes were still fixed like a doll’s, demonstrating Tell Number Four.

He stuffed the money into her hands and followed the cook into the kitchen. She drained the water from the pot into a sink. When she turned to a serving bowl, Fazgood seized a wood spoon and tumbled the crabs in, and set the bowl’s lid on. He picked up the bowl and slipped by the cook before she could ask of the odd object.

Fazgood pressed by the goodwife and slipped through the crowd and up the stairs. His right knee stabbed in pain from his past exertions.

A lantern cast dim light onto the walls and window, and reflected a moony sheen against the stacks of plates and bowels on a hutch at the far end of the table.

He set the serving bowel upon the table and plucked up a plate. The goodwife and a maid was at the door.

“Please get me a pitcher of water. And a bottle of tziembroask,” he said to the maid.

Even if I don’t drink the tziembroask, he thought, It will good to have a friendly face in the room.

Seeing Fazgood preparing to dine, the goodwife flipped one of her wringing hands and sent the maid running.

Should I wait for the water? Ask for some fruit or cream?

There was a scuffing at the door, and Fazgood noted the goodwife had gone.

He cast his mind down the tunnel to contact Warren. The light at the tunnel grew, and he saw through Warren’s eyes. In the shared bedroom, Calzjha sat up on the mattress. On the far side of Calzjha, Respiration sat.

The goodwife was speaking, “—- Obdurate sent word that he would join us for dinner and that everyone must be in attendance. There is no –-“

[Warren, I believe I am about to be murdered.]

[What! What is this! Calzjha, the Earl communicates –]

[I became hasty, and I became sloppy. I am followed and betrayed to the Brigades. I am at the Three Bellflowers in the Foreign Due. I suspect you may find the body there. Now I will eat moosecrab.]

[My Earl, please –]

Fazgood pulled himself out of the tunnel. He sensed Warren’s mind pattering after him, but suppressing Warren’s insight required minimal will, doing so left only a nagging feeling of something creeping under his chair.

A bitter thing to do, but there is no need for an audience.

He raised the lid and was enveloped in steam. Within the crabs was the antler, gleaming with sweat, specked with herbs.

I lost my will. I went mad finally, and enchanted myself on a suicide errand. That must be what happened.

He flicked the still-hot antler onto a plate and slipped the knife from his pocket. He pulled the dull blade and laid the sheath to the side.

Crack! The knife went into the shell as a delicious, salty steam curled.

The relish! He pulled the bottle from his inside pocket.

He admonished himself from before the journey (the Hrikinik-employed, still-sharp self of just months prior), Let’s what all this is about.

He cut and unraveled the gold seal into a length of pretty gold ribbon. No metallic tapping.

He untwisted the stopper. His nostril hairs felt the fire of the relish first. His nose stung as if swarmed by tiny, biting ants.

Tap tap tap the bottlemouth onto his plate. No relish came out. He growled then the knife fished up the bottleneck to goad the relish. A flow of yellow fluid, chunky and moist, spilled out, accented by tiny black flecks and tinier red seeds.

A scuff at the door brought his attention up to the maid with a pitcher of water and a brown bottle of –- the dim light gleamed upon the elaborate porcelain work, the leaves of the stylized rosebush gleaming umber as it reached up and around to the blue-waxed stopper at the top. He recognized the bottle’s style.

Maktmerkt Eicht Bonded Tzeimbroask.

The pitcher of water he ignored.

The Earl took the knife and dug out a steaming, juicy alabaster piece of moosecrab.

He stabbed the knife tip into the chunk. He swirled it into the relish and –-

“Aspirant Pehzpersist, though I remember different,” said the Inspector at the door, behind the frightened maid. “You have come up in the gods’ favor.”

The knife stopped halfway to Fazgood’s mouth.

“You can go,” the Inspector said to the maid. “We will not be disturbed.”

The maid slipped away. The Inspector stepped into the room. The lamplight caught his copper curls and made them gleam red. Beyond the maid’s skipping steps, the Earl noted that the conversation downstairs had gotten noticeably hushed and breathy, whispers of anticipation echoing up to the place of interest. Other slow, methodical clacks of steps followed the Inspector’s, more companions coming up the brick stairs stealthily.

Fazgood considered the moosecrab just inches from his mouth.

What will this do if I eat it? What would I be capable of putting in this relish, and what would happen if I ate it now? How much mayhem could I have imagined to mix in these spices?

The Inspector stepped to the table and pulled up a stool. “Your meal is interrupted, and for that I apologize.”

He sat down with an affable sigh, not asking permission to sit. Behind him, a huge Adactoid filled the doorway.

The Earl’s heart fluttered in panic. He took a breath. He scraped the knife against the plate edge, easing the crab morsel back onto the plate. He turned behind him. He held a plate, which he showed to Mehzadapt. He turned the plate over and covered his food to keep it from going cold.

Another deputy took up position at the door, a wide-eyed and grinning Therihe.

Mehzadapt chose his words. “You…have found advantage since last you were in our city.”

“I…have never…never visited Harmonium.”

A thick pink hand rose in protest. “You were born here, and lived here a time. I remember you. Do you remember me?”

Fazgood gave shrug. His heart pounded.

The Inspector leaned, his fingertips upon the table. “Do you remember the name Mehzadapt?”

“No…honestly, no.”

“We were friends as children! Surely you remember me? I have changed, but my name has not.”

The Earl shook his head, his lip formed a protest that would not come.

The Brigadesman tapped the pot. “What have you here?”

Fazgood, frozen, surrounded by sneers, did not reply.

“What is it?” snapped the Inspector.


“No moosecrabs?”

Refelxively, Fazgood said, “They’re fallow.”

Mehzadapt picked up the lid of the tureen with the remaining crabs, peeked and poked at them, then dropped the lid back with a clatter. Fazgood jumped.

The Inspector threw his hands up in a mockery of gossip. “I have something far more interesting than crabs.”

He snapped a knuckle and the toolbag was passed forward. The Inspector dropped the toolbag onto the Earl’s covered plate. Fazgood’s hands flew to keep the plates properly set, covering the antler.

“A concerned citizen found this bag. Imagine how awkward it would have been if some child had opened the bag.”

The Inspector reached. With his left hand he seized Fazgood’s clenched fingers. The Inspector’s right hand pinched Fazgood’s cheek. “Why in Exhus’ name do you have human testicles in this bag?”

Fazgood endured the pinch. The Inspector let go and clapped his shoulder.

“I know not what this bag is about. If you are collecting a debt, or enacting a vengeance, then you have found woe. The Scout Brigades are the only ones licensed to those tasks. This bag would have been very awkward for you if it had been found by the police. So, you are obliged to me. Speak your obligation.”

“I, Pehzpersist, am obliged to you –“

“But you are not Pehzpersist!” yelled the Inspector in Fazgood’s ear.

The deputies chuckled.

“You are named Fazgood. You were exiled. You have returned for mischief and you are obligated to me.”

The Earl’s chin was tucked against his chest, heart curling into a child’s fear.

“Speak your obligation. There is our way or the way we treat strangers. You are home. So speak your obligation.”

A whisper. “My name is Pehzpersist.”

The Inspector snarled and waved a hand. “Has Reedtickle arrived?”

“Is Reedtickle arrived?” said Varalam. “Just arrived, he has.”

Another wave. The Adactoid made way and the Booloob floated through the doorway, brown sphere shimmering in the lamplight, plughat planted firm. The lotcaster drifted over the Inspector’s shoulder.

Reedtickle warbled. “The wind over the river buffeted one, but here I am. What do you wish?”

Mehzadapt leaned back upon his stool. “I want his lies sent flying back down his throat.”

“A tone to squash lies. Should he know that it will be very painful?”

“Let us show him. Commence the tone.”

The Booloob vibrated, and a sound filled the room. It tickled deep within the ear, and cause all hold hands to their heads. On the table, the plates vibrated in slow, regular rhythms.

Impatient, Mehzadapt spat. “What is your name?”

“My name is Pehzper –- ugh!”

The Earl whooped and gagged on the lie as it was forced back down his throat and back into his lungs. He coughed and held fingers up to his mouth. He coughed again and they spattered with blood.

“A few more like that,” the Inspector grinned, “and you will be drowning in your own juices. Let us try this again. What is your name?”

Fazgood coughed. He stared at more blood and paled. “What is your business? I do not know you!”

The Inspector leaned forward, realizing what was said. He looked to the lotcaster.

The bubble-being dipped and bobbed, in a manner like a shrug. “He does not know you, Inspector. Either his memory is poor, or he had no past with you.”

“I know different,” Mehzadapt whispered. “What is your name?”

Fazgood’s lips tightened.

“I am hungry,” he said.

Fazgood pushed the plate the plate from over the antler. In one move, Fazgood seized the cracked antler in one hand and smeared it through the large pile of relish upon the plate. He bit.

Once past the crack of the shell, the sweet, buttery, long-dreamed and yearned for crab-meat squished into his maw. The relish mixed with the meat and fell upon the exposed flesh of his mouth and tongue.

The first taste of that relish is sweet, near the tip of the tongue. The tongue was baffled by this honeyed bath, and in a misguided joy tossed the mouthful over its back.

That is the fatal error with Lava-God-Vengenace Relish.

As the mouthful slides upon the crest of the tongue, the taste buds burn. The burn then seems a coal of white-hot iron. The throat closes from the fumes from the red ntotlo pepper, a pepper specially bred to season the sedimentary meals of the stone-palleted Molaks.

This activates the subtlest ingredient of all: the slightest hints of magnesium liberate, the spiritual quality of magnesium liberated from its physical form. Sages have never found a practical application for this liberate, a liberate so fiery that ghosts flinch at its touch, except as the secret ingredient of Lava-God-Vengenace Relish.


*         *         *


Fazgood felt a yelp echoing in his head. All of his tension, the stink of the room and of the deputy, the very pressure of the humid air, all vanished.

He knew this feeling. He looked down. Beyond his feet, which were limned with a slight port-colored haze, he saw himself on the stool at the Inn.

The Earl’s body leaned back very slowly into a ghastly choke. Beside the body, the Inspector slowly rose from his stool.

The deputies also had dropped their poses of menace and had leaned forward in alarm. All were frozen, no, moving very, very slowly.

Had Fazgood lungs, he would have sighed with annoyance.

He looked about his mauved form to mists rising to the unseen firmament.


The mist revealed nothing.

[Hrikinik, you grasping noisemaker!]

Came tickling through the supernatural surroundings an irritation, a grating metallic rattle.

Through that rattle came a trilling, [My Comet! Too long! Too long! Too long it has been!]

The mist parted and two figures approached.

The one to the left was a great viscid column, green, dripping and gruelent.

Drifting before that was a pile of blue fleshy folds, enrobed in a scintillating crystal fabric. Its chest and thorax rattled and sucked with valves, reeds, and bladders. Atop its blue head sat a set of black pipes cut with mouths, a living pipe-organ.

[My Comet!] said H’rikinik, [So bored! I have missed your antics so! You are days late in your call!]

The Earl looked to the pillar of mucous. [Greetings, Kri-Tzh.]

Fangs opened in the slime. [Greetings, Fazgood.]

Fazgood looked to his former employer with a sneer. [Why did I do all of this?]

The Half-Prince opened his hands in supplication. [You asked humbly for a favor! I am always willing to indulge my thralls, particularly my most amusing ones.]

The Earl looked down to the room. Deputies slipped forward, the Booloob eased back, and the Inspector dodged, his face crushed with an odd disappointment.

Hrikinik drifted close to block Fazgood’s view.

[I see our bottle of relish! And you have tasted your Harmonium Moosecrab! Ugh! What did that poor crab do to you?]

[It wasted my time. Why am I here?]

[Revenge, dear Comet! You are here in Harmonium for an act of vengeance! Thirty years ago, someone betrayed your mentors to their fiery death! It was your dearest wish for thirty years to enter Harmonium and murder the traitor!]

Fazgood snorted. [You can not fool me! The Eleven Circles died but…but…]

H’rikinik’s orifices opened for a roaring laugh. [But you do not remember how they came to be in the fire! A trusted messenger brought them all together in a secret hideout, after telling the Brigade captains the time and location!]

Below, a deputy had reached the antler in Fazgood’s grasp. The Inspector had retreated to the far corner of the room.

[You were that messenger! Betrayed by one who told you a lie.]

Fazgood chilled. I killed them? It is my fault they are dead?

[You escaped,] the Timpanate fluttered his hands, [and lived your life exiled. You buried your guilt and rage deep! Its fire propelled you for decades!]

The Inspector’s grimace of disappointment grew, grotesque in its slow blooming.

[And thirty years later! Ah-ha-ha! Idle chat with a merchant informed you that your betrayer was now exalted! Exalted in the home that denied you! Exalted over the lonely graves of your friends!]

The Earl racked his mind. [Why can’t I remember any of this?]

[That is the genius! That is your genius! You are no murderer, but you have cunning almost beyond mine! You had to get into Harmonium, past their admittedly skilled lotcasters. Those customs-casters would find an ambitious murderer with no exertion! How do you get past the lotcasters? Tell me!]

A deputy had picked up the sparkling glass bottle. It was up to his nose, and his entire face inched away from the proximity.

Prompted Hrikinik, [When working with the Emperor, you told me you had encountered a marvelous poison gas! Two inert ingredients. By themselves they attract no notice.]

Quashing the hateful memory of that poison, the Earl saw the sparkling bottle anew.

[That party trick of yours of putting your loathing into a bottle and serving it to guests…]

[Yes! The relish! Contains your memory of your friends’ betrayal! Contains the motive for the murder! Bereft of motive, we replaced your need to be in Harmonium with an obsession with…ah-ha-ha…what passes for unique cuisine! In the home of…ha-ha…of gummy toast!]

Hrikinik was lost in laughter: the sound of sacks of metal beaten against a herd of sheep.

[And the motive was placed in a substance no sane person would swallow,] Fazgood considered.

Hrikinik nodded.

The Earl said, [Gods, that is a good idea.]

[I would have thought of it.]

[But did you, oh great Timpanate?]

The Adanikarese seethed. He gathered his composure, [I did mean to tell you something very important to your brilliant plan…]

He leaned close.

[Moosecrab is fallow this year.]

[You knew?!]

Enraged, the Earl lunged to throttle the Half-Prince. The tower of mucus pressed.

[This is our land, Faz,] warned the horror. [He says the word and I will make you a cyst on my ass, and you know that.]

Fazgood swore many profanities, then: [What of the book, this “Nimblest Man” book? Did you know of that?]

The Sorcerer sobered. [What book?]

The Earl told of “The Nimblest Man.”

Said Hrikinik, [The spirits said it was best you undertook your endeavor immediately. This is to your advantage, and it explains much. Look as I teach.]

Long fingers strummed at the mist. The clouds parted from above the slow franticism of the Bellflower. In the distance was a glowing mountain of light.

The Earl gasped at such beauty.

[What is that?]

[It is the spirit of Harmonium, such as it is. Adanikar has such aura and subtlety that an army of gods would willingly –]

[Then you bored me again. Did you have purpose in showing me?]

Above the mountain, through the wine-lit glow, a giant spirit in flowing red and yellow robes. Its hands, larger than ships, waving through the purple mist.

Hrikinik chuckled. [The Temporary God searches for you. It should have made short work of you. But it seems you are everywhere in the city, as the book has made you so. Gossip is a ruse the Adanikarese know well for baffling simple spirits. Limit your physical touch with others and you will keep safe.]

The Earl shook his head. [Another god to avoid.]

[My little snorting havoc-wright, I have fulfilled my part of our bargain. I have but one question: How is the nerve toy you stole from me?]

[Calzjha is well. And I won a bet, if you remember.]

[You cheated.]

It was Fazgood’s turn to laugh. It felt good.

[Have you experienced my nerve toy yet?]

[Calzjha does what Calzjha wants to do.]

[You shall in time. The temptation is too great, even for one who dreads comfort.]

[So spoke the one who dreads everything.]

The Sorcerer made to retort, but with a smile and a wave of dismissal, the Timpanate said, [Dread? Your life-long enemy sits before you. You are too mild to kill him. That is something to dread!]


*         *         *


A wheezing roar filled his head. Cold water poured into his mouth and overflowed over his face and shirt. Hands pounded his back.

“Drink this! Drink this!”

“Ugh! What whim took him to even taste this stuff!”

“Should I get a physic? Perhaps I should get a physic?”

Fazgood swallowed and pushed the pitcher away. He held up a hand and took a breath. His throat felt shriveled. Tentatively, his tongue wiggled, dazed yet rejoicing to have survived. Numbly, it felt the morsel of crab, was prodded by bits of shell. Fazgood realized his face was locked, squinted and clenched. With effort, he swallowed.

Then rage swept over him.

He’s here! The man who ruined my life! I’d be happy if it weren’t for him!

Blind, he reached his right hand at the table. He pushed past a deputy’s shoulder. Unerringly, fingers seized a bumpy, round, hard object. With one stroke of his thumbnail, he scraped the wax seal from the tziembroask bottle.

He opened his eyes. His first sight was the Adactoid’s scarred, craggy face.

The deputy laughed. “We thought you had poisoned yourself!”

Fazgood’s mouth opened into a cry of anguish at the relish. It suppressed his desire to cry:

Mehzadapt! Here in front of me! Murderer! Traitor!

The Earl pressed his left hand past the massive shoulder and grabbed a cup from the corner of the table. The thumb eased the flat porcelain stop from the bottle. He poured himself a cup and drank. That fire warmed like a baked loaf of bread in autumn.

Fazgood picked up a napkin, wiped the water and sweat from his face, and blew his nose.

From the doorway, the russet-haired Inspector said, “What are you trying to do? You need to behave better!”

It’s him!

He poured and drank another cup. The warmth spread. He choked out a roar of hate. Covered his nose and blew again.

The warmth eased into his neck. His breath came slower.

Behave better? Oh Mehzadapt, you haven’t seen the first of how I will behave.

The Earl balled up the napkin and dabbed his brow to hide his recognition.

He coughed. “That, good citizens, was the Lava-God’s-Revenge.”

“Sniff this!” said the flushing man. “It could melt barnacles!”

The Adactoid took the bottle, tiny in his plate-wide hand, sniffed, then yelped.

The Earl slapped the cup onto the table. Behind the Earl, the heavy scout gave an odd squeak and backed away.

“Cornpudding,” warned the Inspector.

Fearful, a round, stinking deputy edged away.

Fazgood quickly poured another cup and offered to all. “Would you like a drink? Pardon my rudeness.”

The deputy shook his head, cheeks quivering.

“He don’t drink!” smirked the skinny one. “Gets all scared about it.”

The Inspector Mehzadapt pressed to the table and clapped the Adactoid on the shoulder. “I will take it from here, deputy. I will have that drink, Fazgood.”

The Earl wiped his eyes again and took another deep breath. “Bring a cup. Is there a cup?”

Another drink was poured. Mehzadapt’s mouth pulled as the tziembroask bit his stomach.

“Not bad,” he said. “But I prefer caml-zre.”

The Inspector noted the bottle, and saw the Birqmuir seal.

“Spend much time in the Empire, Fazgood?”

“Years ago, I did. Inspector.”

The Inspector noted the bold tone of voice and said, “Are you certain you do not recognize me?”

Careful, thought the Earl.

“If I seem changed, Inspector, try some relish and discover why.”

Mehzadapt looked back to the Booloob in the doorway. The hat rotated a little, another shrug.

The Inspector regarded the glittering bottle with a twitch of apprehension, then noted his surrounding deputies. “I will. Later.”

The deputies all snorted, but regarded the bottle with curiosity.

Fazgood said, “Pardon my taking food. I was famished, and I become faint in such times. Bread would serve me better. Would you like some bread?”

Without waiting for an answer, the Earl pulled a piece of bread and picked up the dull knife. In the ruckus, no one had noted it between the plate and the crab tureen. All started, but the Earl dipped the knife into the relish bottle and dabbed some small chunks. He exhaled through puffed lips, bit and chewed. He set the knife down.

“You will eat when I tell you to eat,” said the Inspector.

“Ah. Indeed. I’ll not be much help faint. And the bread helps much.”

“Set the bread down.”

The Earl took one more bite. Then, he pointedly set the bread on the plate.

Mehzadapt snarled. “Spit that out on the floor. Aim well.”

“No need to menace, Inspector,” Fazgood swallowed, with no more wince than when he drank the tziembroask. “I will tell you everything you want to know. You’re going to want this to be a secret, though. You know where I’ve been living.”

The Inspector noted that swallow. His face reddened. But his eyes betrayed his weighing of those last words.

“I do,” added Fazgood, “prefer the easy way. However, I run full gallop at the moneyed way. This is your city, and any such trails belong to you.”

The Earl waved and indicated all in the room.

“I say: this moneyed trail has room for many.”

Mehzadapt stared full into Fazgood’s eyes. The Earl looked back at him, hands folded.

“Tlezjoy, clear this end of the table. Then you and Cornpudding leave. Varalam and Reedtickle, sit at the far end of the table.”

The table was cleared, as it kept all sharp or potentially sharp objects from Fazgood’s grasp; but not the tziembroask bottle as the Earl made a point to seize it. The deputies redistributed.

The toolbag was placed on the floor.

“You have my attention,” said Mehzadapt.

The Earl poured another cup. “You wouldn’t believe the fluxion flowing in that keep, Inspector.”


My First Public Reading

22 05 2014

will be at BaltiCon this Saturday.
I’ll be there with Tom Doyle, author of “American Craftsman” from Tor Books.


21 05 2014

The dusk through the latticed windows lit Deputy Tlezjoy’s face a dim gold.

With his head titled so, considered the Inspector, that sharp chin and nose of his looks handsome. But then deputy spoke, and his smile turned wicked, and the effect was petty and harsh.

“My first stalker heard a terrible crash! My stalker runs outside and found that the tremblar had run straight into that glass house with the birds and the vineflits.”

“A tremblar ran?” asked the Inspector. Tlezjoy’s enthusiasm for destruction was tiresome, and so Mehzadapt tried to quash that foul joy whenever it presented itself.

“The tremblar shook into the glass house.”

“What happened?”

The grin revived. “Ah! The tremblar escaped from his house! He shook into the glass house and the foundations all jiggled and the glass all shattered.”

“Anybody hurt?”

“A couple of citizens were cut up. All that broken glass just angered the tremblar more. They’ve got thick skins.”

The Inspector prompted. “Your first stalker lost the suspect back at the tremblar cage.”

“The rain was so thick, the stalker didn’t even bother to look.”

“Beat your young sleuth. Make comprehensive use of his exposed skin. The young need an example so that they will remember the basics.”

“Gladly, Inspector. Our second stalker was waiting at the entrance, just to be safe. The bag the suspect carried made the both of the stalkers suspicious. She’s getting soaked waiting in the rain when someone goes running by.”

Mehzadapt glared at the attempt at dramatic tension. “Tell and be done!”

Tlezjoy swallowed. “Turns out it’s the suspect! Wearing a Pathetic’s robe! She wouldn’t have known it was him but for seeing his basket. And he’s running down the middle of the road! He’s carrying a basket with a huge moosecrab inside!”

“Deputy, did you say a moosecrab?”

The deputy bit back a grin. “Yes, Inspector! She glimpsed a large moosecrab. She thought she saw some other animal, but the moosecrab seized her attention.”

“A moosecrab!”

“The second stalker’s worth her salt, that one! Tried to whistle the other stalker, but the rain and thunder was too loud. Then when the rain stopped, he caught a rickshaw holding only the toolbag.”

“The same bag that he carried this morning?”

“It looked like it, she said.”

“He walked from the river without the basket.”

“He left the basket. We have it for you to look at. It seems just a pitch basket. There was no sign of the crab.”

Mehzadapt considered.

“She watched him ride off in a rickshaw all wet hunched in his coat again. He was carrying the old brown toolbag. The suspect was headed back into the city.”

Sagging back onto his cushion, Mehzadapt sipped his tea.

The deputy summarized. “Someone had opened the locked door, then nailed a canvas to the floor. The police are blowing a squall about the tremblar being let loose and the crab swiped.”

“Did you check the zoo yourself?”

“I confirm it. The keepers are all weepy. The moosecrab is gone.”

It is obvious that Fazgood loosed that tremblar and destroyed that exhibit! But to loose a moosecrab? What insane whim took him?

“Maintain the watch on Greatsergeant Keep,” the Inspector sucked his lip. “You go to the Amusatorium with that stalker girl. She shows you exactly what path that servant took, and you examine every inch of that trail for hiding spaces.”

“Do you have any idea what he’s up to, Inspector?”

“I can surmise. Indeed I can suppose.”

Behind his calm and meditative face, the Inspector wrung his brain. Destroying a zoo to free a moosecrab?

The Inspector waved his hand. “Tell Bookwright to come here. You are dismissed.”

The deputy stepped out the door and yawped for Bookwright. Alone, the Inspector contemplated in earnest, his fingers templed in front of his mouth, sucking at the fingertips. He had a sudden insight:

Ah! What of the zoo? Are any of the animals of value? Perhaps. He has worked for the Emperor and the Xhnar Family in the Three Cities. Magicians need esoterica, and many of those animals are rare.

He grunted and shook his head. But those creatures could be procured more readily in their native lands! He could have traveled direct to those lands to gain the obscure animal.

The moosecrab is found only in the shoals near Harmonium, he realized.

They are fallow this year.

Mehzadapt liked a good moosecrab, and he endured fallow years glumly.

But Fazgood took the crab to the river. If he wanted to eat it, he could have packed the whole creature off into a trunk of ice and headed to the city.

He blinked and shook his head again. And Fazgood is an exile. He risks being branded and maimed, yet he destroys a zoo to free a moosecrab?

And at the door last night, he made not to recognize my face or name! One can forget many things, but not almost being burned alive!

Mehzadapt muttered to the empty room. “He must have known he was followed, and performed this nonsense to keep me from knowing his true task.”

Fazgood kept the toolbag. There may be the secret.

Footsteps, Bookwright’s light scuffling steps, then that deputy entered. “Yes, Inspector?”

The Inspector looked up at the tall, slim man. “You are a splendid pickpocket. You got in trouble about that, I recall. Stealing from your captain.”

The smile weakened with the sudden, refreshed shame.

“I got you out of that difficulty. Now you can put that wondrous skill to use.”

“Yes, Inspector?”

“Listen well, Bookwright: Go to Greatsergeant’s keep. Look to all who exit there. There is an old brown toolbag that a Therihe carries. It interests me. If he leaves that keep with that bag, I want you to filch it and bring it to me. This is the subtlest matter. Use your greatest guile, as the one who you would filch is wily and on his guard. Do not disappoint.”

The scout scuffled down the hall. The Inspector rose and slipped on his blazer.

I should bring Fazgood in. But over a stolen crab? I could use that to obligate him, and find out his intentions, maybe turn him in, or get leverage on his accomplices.

Mehzadapt slid aside a hidden panel in the ablewood wall to reveal a large mirror. He checked his shoulders, and fixed his ascot. His heart pounded at the possibilities.

A Paragon being obliged to me; that would be of great use. And an army adjutant under obligation would be a luxurious reward. Perhaps this Ijkalla fellow –- the Foofaloof? — is honest; if so, then an authority from a new territory would be my new associate. If this Foofaloof is a connivance, I have exposed a fraud who has duped the civil elite.

He crushed mint drops into his handkerchief and rubbed the kerchief over his teeth. He nodded and took a breath.

Fazgood is here for some grand theft. He couldn’t possibly imagine he could sneak into Harmonium under a new identity, become a new citizen, and go undetected.

Seizing Fazgood outright would cause an uproar. The Foofaloof may prove authentic. Inquiring of the Greatsergeants is out of the question.

Any suspicion of an army officer should be reported to the police. But I am not certain of what the man might have done, am I? It would not be proper to subject the officer to investigation without at least one detail, would it?

Satisfied that his rationalization would withstand official scrutiny, he put aside all thought of contacting the police. He stepped out the door into the hallway.

That some found ambiguity comfortable, was justification enough for the Inspector to stall notifying the police.

Down the hall, a group of deputies turned the corner. They parted and kept respectful distance around a Exult.

“Inspector Mehzadapt,” crowed Inspector Akekek. She waved her underlings to stay as she walked down the hall.

Mehzadapt folded his hands solemnly and nodded.

The Exult pointed. “I have been missing your voice at the prayers for the Magnate.”

Mehzadapt resisted glancing at the listening congregants. “A matter of terrible low treason has appeared, Inspector.”

A low, clucking chuckle escaped from the feathered throat. “Treason? It must be terrible indeed, to seize the attention of the most pious Mehzadapt. You should tell me of it.”.

She would doubtless tell Mikdoktik the most useful parts of this conversation.

The man shrugged. “Would tomorrow morning suffice?”

Akekek’s eyes gave a glimmer of wariness. “That would be splendid! Intrigues over tea.”

Relief washed through Mehzadapt. His smile remained unmoved.

Akekek drew close. “Mikdoktik presses for the brigade captain’s vote at the beginning of next week. Mikdoktik wants the transition to the new regime to be smooth, with a minimum of solicitation.”

Mehzadapt’s breath stilled. A quick vote would keep Mehzadapt from bargaining with captains to support him. The Adactoid knew that. If Mikdoktik became Magnate, the Adactoid would press for a review of Mehzadapt’s competency.

He managed to snort. “Has Mikdoktik no respect for tradition? The vote is mandated to occur ten days after the magnate’s passing.”

“I agree. But the scouts need steady leadership. The ten-day rule has been set aside before in the history of the Scouts. We must show we are well-disciplined, or else the Royal Family may intervene.”

Akekek waited a rebuttal, a raptor’s gleam in her eye.

Nobody wanted the Royal Family’s attention. The Royal Family were three generations from god-head, and spoke with spirits as easily as one spoke with an accountant over tea. And the dead kept their jealousies. He was not ready for the petty dead to ruin his career of service, not when he was so close to a glorious prize like the Mad Earl.

The Inspector smiled. “When we meet tomorrow, I would like to discuss any ideas you may have about the future of the brigades.”


The Exult giggled. “Tomorrow, I would like to hear more than discuss. To hear about low treasons discovered. Now, I must take my leave to rest. I suspect tomorrow morning to be quite challenging.”

Akekek turned and laughed louder. She walked to her underlings, who all cast sly looks to Mehzadapt as they joined Akekek’s departure. Fear and anger swept chills through the Inspector.

She did not even entertain a negotiation! Are she and Mikdoktik so securely cemented?

He waited and listened for the fading steps of Akekek’s retinue as they descended the stairs.

Satisfied that he was alone, the Inspector strode down the stairs. He pressed through the crowded gallery with the historic fresco; he shook his hands and lamented the Magnate as he walked through the mourners. He walked out the door. Under the purpling dusk, grim Varalam waited.

Mehzadapt turned his attention to the Plaza. In the brighter north-west corner sparkled the trickling walls of the Merhiaz Nurturance. He wondered if –- yes! He did pay his tithe. The mourners began singing “The Star-Lit Path Toward Home”.

There was the jangling of chimes from the west end of the Plaza. Through the delighted crowd dashed a brown-clad member of Public Works, followed by citizens in blue and maroon and yellow. He held aloft a standard with bells of iron and brass. Long ribbons of red played from the standard and lapped and licked along the delighted bystanders.

“’Jezr-Ji!’” they cried. “They’re playing ‘Jezr-Ji!’”

“What is that strange joy?” asked Varalam.

“It is the most potent form of discernment known. The Therihe invented it,” said the Inspector. “I haven’t known a game to be played in many years.”

Their path took them straight toward the Inspector. The ribbons flitted and touched all around them.

The ribbons!

“Get in the rickshaw, deputy! Get in!”

Mehzadapt cuffed the Adactoid into the rickshaw. The Inspector dove after him. He pulled his arm away from the open side. Red ribbons slipped along the ablewood, over the driver’s back, then away through the crowd ahead of them.

He shouted at the deputy. “Did a ribbon touch you?”

Varalam cringed, despite his size. “No! But it is just a game!”

Another set of runners trotted across the far side of the Plaza. He sneered at the deputy’s ignorance.

They are assembling a Temporary God! Having a ribbon touch means that Temporary God will know what is in your heart! Your identity and desires made plain to all of Public Works!

Mehzadapt watched them disappear into the laughing throng of the Plaza.

He told the driver. “Go to the docks! Run!”


*         *         *


The door opened and a maid squinted at the drenched Earl. Through his pains, Fazgood attempted Pehzpersist’s vague expression. The maid gave a sigh of aggravation and stepped to allow the Earl enter.

He limped upstairs. Voices echoed around the hallway and down the stairs; he paused.

[Listen, Warren.]

The weasel wrestled within the jacket, fur dark with wet. The Earl tried to listen as well.

“Why don’t the merchants ever share their reports…”

“…some illness! Sometimes a new location will cause…”

“Let us pray not! He is such a splendid…”

Reported the weasel, [Calzjha feigned an illness today to get out of contemplations. It has left the congregants hungry for information.]

The Earl nodded. That would be effective, and it would make them sympathetic.

Fluxion! They will have me in there speaking about the Ijkallas!

The Earl sneaked up the last few steps. Slipping around the top of the stairs, he stepped down the hall away from the crowd, keeping close to the ablewood latticement. He ducked under the chain securing the hinged metal gatework in place.

He came to the bedroom door. He listened outside the bedroom. Hearing nothing, slipped inside and shut the door.

Calzjha lay upon the bed, asleep, dressed from the morning, hands upon her chest. The windows were shut tight, and the fan was unlit. Clouds of incense created strata in the air, the smell deeply floral and earthy. The Earl set Warren on the floor. He placed the toolbag at the foot of the bed. Quietly he slipped out of his wet blazer, shoes and pants. He found a towel and dried his clammy feet and legs.

He found a fresh set of clothes and changed as quickly as he could, considering his bruises and sprained knee. The dry clothes brought the blood back to his skin, and his spirits rallied somewhat. Still, coming back for the relish put him back in the Scout Brigade view.

If I was the brigades, I would put new stalkers on my trail, and double their number. I need another way out of the home.

On the floor, Warren rolled in the towel. He cast inscrutable looks at the Earl, but kept his council. Could weasels grimace? Even if they could, Warren would be too politic.

Distracted, the Earl considered the figure recumbent upon the bed. For an unguarded flitting of thought,

The skin of her stomach is so smooth.

Vexed with himself, he growled and walked to the window.

We had an agreement!

Behind him the sheet rustled. “You have returned.”

Newly annoyed, he said, “Yes, I know. I was here when it happened.”

Calzjha said nothing, which gave satisfaction.

[My liege, I must restate my misgivings. What you are about to do is distasteful.]

[I am on personal terms with distaste, squire. If I do not relieve this moosecrab madness, we shall all be sitting branded on the Royal Road.]

The Earl spat. “And I find that distasteful.”

“I am sorry to disturb you when you are in such a mood,” whispered Calzjha.

“What is it?”

“That you should find me distasteful…”

Sputtering, Fazgood turned and reddened. “I was speaking to Warren.”

“Ah,” she said, sounding unconvinced. “You are busy, but I need a great favor.”

“What favor?”

“I would do it myself, but I can barely walk.”

“Did I not just ask ‘What is the favor?’”

“I need for you to find a tree and bury me.”

Fazgood gasped. “What? Did something go wrong? Are you dying?”

“No. It is how my people…. It is not important. I need you to bury my testes.”

Fazgood’s concern turned to relief, and turned to self-recrimination for his concern. Then as he remembered the request, he felt his eyes bulge.

“You want me to do what?”

Calzjha unfolded her hands. In her grasp was a bundle of thick white cloth the size of two human fists.

She said, “It is important that they be interred. You know from Adanikar how important it is to my traditions that they be buried at the root of a tree. That must happen the day of they drop off.”

The words struck Fazgood as if he had bitten onto metal very hard.

Calzjha sat up, clutching the bundle close. “I would take my leave this evening and do it myself, but these last few days have been exhausting.”

The Earl replied, “I am in the middle of a job!”

Calzjha sighed. “Would this also be evidence? Please! The room is warm and close, and they would be easily noted tomorrow.”

“Put them in spices overnight! I am in a job!”

“They must be whole and untainted when buried.”

“Can’t I do it this evening when I return?”

“When will you return? It must be done before the moons rise.”

Like I need more gods angry at me if I do not.

He bit back a vicious profanity. “Yes. I will inter them. Yes.”

“Please, they must be under a tree, so that it may give new life.”

“Yes, yes. New life, yes.”

Calzjha smiled weakly, which made the Earl blink as if he had glanced at the sun. She offered the bundle. The Earl cringed.

“Wait! Wait! I must get the ice and crabs into another container! Ah! That ablewood cask looks proper!”

“It holds lotions. What smells? Crabs?”

Calzjha puzzled over the crabs and ice as Fazgood opened the cask and removed the custom-fitted bottles. Calzjha sighed at the loss of the cask, but said nothing.

The Earl scooped ice into the cask. He crouched over his task to hide it from Calzjha, and delicately placed the antler into the ice. He placed the crabs on top with another layer of ice.

“What are those crabs? Did you find a moosecrab?”

“These are no moosecrabs,” said Fazgood.

Warren began, [But –]

[And you keep our mission secret, squire.]

[I do so under strong protest.]

[Just that you do so.]

Fazgood held out the toolbag at fingertip length and shook it to indicate Calzjha place his bundle within. Saddened by the Earl’s disgust, Calzjha placed his testes into the ice. The Earl closed it firmly.

He looked around the room and found a small satchel of handkerchiefs. He shook them out onto the bed and stuck the wet bags of spice and moalflakes within. This he crammed into the cask, which latched closed with a push.

“I thank you,” said Calzjha.

Her voice was weak and it struck pity in the Earl, at which feeling he cursed and ground into powder, which he then imagined stomping upon.

Fazgood turned to the windowsill and found the gold-topped bottle of relish. The seal was intact. He removed the alarming note and stuck the bottle inside a blazer pocket.

“I am away. I shall return by dinnertime. Warren shall stay.”

“Where do you go?”

“I have an appointment in the Foreign Due.”

Puzzled, Calzjha remarked, “The crabs should enjoy the tour.”

“I promise to return.”

Warren scurried to the door jam. [My liege, please do not eat that crab’s flesh! The gods will curse you!]

[They’ve cursed me before. I will make amends.]

[The Inspector will have someone following you! You won’t be safe!]

[Squire, then your presence is best served here to tell of my troubles.]

Relieved to have bested Warren, he made quick escape before the weasel could rally a new argument. The Earl eased up the latch, picked up the toolbag by the handles, picked up the cask in both hands. He clenched his eyebrows and jaw and nudged the door open with his foot.

Goodwife Greatsergeant stood with the judge, the Mezzo-Barritone. Behind them stood Goodwife Carper, a smile twitching her face. There was no sign of Obdurate.

Respiration’s eyes narrowed. “How is the Foofaloof? His friends are concerned.”

Ah! And how she sings that word with just enough of a point, like a mosquito’s whine, noted the Earl.

“The Foofaloof will take a few visitors,” said the Earl, not feeling charitable with Calzjha’s energies. “Please let me by. I thank you.”

The judge rumbled. “Do you believe we should call a physician?”

Fazgood gazed somberly. “The exalted Foofaloof has a generous soul. It is always his way to commit more than his delicate nature can allow. Now I must pass. I thank you.”

Goodwife Carper and the judge looked to each other with guilt and alarm.

Whispered that nervous woman. “We had no idea!”

“But,” said Fazgood, “given a day of rest and prayer, the Foofaloof does recover to full health. A physician will not be necessary, though the offer is appreciated.”

Their collective alarm eased.

The judge’s finger fidgeted at his cuff. “May we speak with him?”

Fazgood stepped aside. “He would be glad for a few words.”

The Earl stepped down the hall and down the stairs. He had expected some veiled inquiry from the clever Respiration, but none came.

Perhaps she means to interrogate Warren; after I have secured a kitchen and eaten the antler, it will matter not Fabri’s follicle.

He took a rickshaw down to the Malabar Flats. The Earl did not bother looking around for stalkers, as he was certain they were in pursuit.

Fazgood paid with a coin still chilled from the rain. Sitting upon the cask with a groan, he held the cold toolbag against his knee, and listened to the water slap against the quay. There was a crowd of merchants waiting around the dock, eating from vendors, drinking from fountains, conversing.

He contemplated the toolbag with a mirthless chuckle.

I am in Harmonium. I remember swearing I would never come back unless it was to pillage. I do remember that.

If I could eat brick and wood to be done with this craving, then call me a termite. But moosecrab it must be.

And according to the note I left for myself on the relish, I had myself enchanted to have this craving, to eat a crab found only here in Harmonium, and forget the enchantment.

Why would I madden myself?

The Ferry arrived. The Earl gritted his teeth through the crowd, anxious at every surge and push. The boat filled to near capacity. Because he had a burden, the citizens around him allowed his a seat. It was too near the middle of the boat to be truly safe, but it was that or struggle with the cask and hi knee was aching again. He scrutinized his neighbors and found them acceptable.

Sunlight rippled pink upon the river and reminded him of the moosecrab still growing at the bottom. He was tired and the waves and heat made his body heavy. A strong breeze from the sea wafted over the boat. The salty sting reminded him of moosecrab, and the craving pulled at him like a hot tide and he clutched the cask tighter.

At the front of the boat, a musician played a restful air on a reed flute, which was thin like the legs of a moosecrab.

The ferry’s passage began getting choppy, and Fazgood realized he had been dozing. The Foreign Due dock approached. All stood, and he did as well. He looked around, but all he could see were blue-clad shoulders. The ferry struck the dock.

Fazgood seized the cask, but momentum tugged the bag from his grip.

An errand boy sprawled on the deck, then skittered between complaining passengers and was gone.

Fazgood straightened in his seat.

A tall, dark-complected man in a merchant coat helped the Earl up. “Someone should take these errand children to task!”

The Earl felt handles in his grip, and luggage bump his hip. “I thank you, citizen!”

He tried to look at the bag, but the crowd was too tight.

“A good day to all, stranger.” A hale smile, and the man stepped into the passing crowd.

I have to fix this accent, Fazgood considered.

The Earl rose from his seat and walked from the dock. He adjusted the cask in his hands and felt the toolbag was lighter.

Fazgood gritted his teeth to suppress a shriek. His mind flashed with an anatomy lesson spilled onto the concrete. He looked down. There was no white bundle behind him, no trail of viscera up the path. The bag still felt odd.

In his right hand, instead of the toolbag handles were two lengths of tarred rope. They were attached to a ragged carpetbag.

Filched! Someone switched the bag!

He looked around while walking. Shoulders bobbed around him, faces passed. The boy was gone.

It wouldn’t have been him. The merchant! It was a two-person bump! Such a simple maneuver! How could I be fooled by a two-person bump? I haven’t been filched in years, and the best have tried! By a two-person bump!

He looked, but knew it would do no good. Even if he caught the man, who could Fazgood complain to?

The relish!

He felt his pocket, then sneaked a peek and saw the gold stopper. His heart settled.

He could just as easily have stabbed me. Losing my edge! The only thing that may have kept me alive is that the Scouts are too thin-blooded for daylight murder.

He bit back his despair. The craving burned through him again. Then he remembered the bundle in Calzjha’s hands.


He set down the cask and opened the bag, finding only a few stones and some rags to fill out the bag’s sides. Fazgood looked back at the city, the shadows deepening over the deep gray and tan buildings. He grunted and nodded.

Now they are disposed. Yes. I will tell Calzjha there are trees on the Due. She won’t know. No, she knows me too well: she will ask for details. I shall tell her that I buried them on the riverbank. Within view of the Amusatorium.

He threw the bag down, and walked within the gates. The sun dipped behind the quays and the sky turned the color of boiled moosecrab.

*         *         *


The moosecrab pink deepened to purple as the Inspector and four deputies stood on the Malabar Flats Ferry dock; the crowd left them much space due to their glowering. The scouts left the Inspector his space, as his glowering had set them on edge.

Tall, dark Bookwright stepped from the ferry, his proud swagger a contrast to his grim associates. Within the crowd, he resorted to euphemisms:

“I found this bag,” he said of his theft. “When our guest stood, he did look terribly distracted. Some message child bumped him, the bags got confused, and my second intern slipped away easy.”

He was filched in a two-person bump? What simple work to steal from this “Mad Earl”!

The Inspector narrowed his eyes. “Where is our guest now?”

“He is at the Due! My interns seek him. One will meet us at the dock with his location.”

“Give me the bag,” said the Inspector.

With more swaggering before his peers, the deputy handed the bag to his superior.

Mehzadapt jerked the bag open. He shoved away icy slush and picked open the cloth.

The Inspector forgot to be angry. He grimaced, then shook his head as he was honestly and thoroughly dumbfounded:

What esoteric mayhem is this man up to?

Behind Mehzadapt’s shoulder, Tlezjoy and Varalam peeked inside.

“That crab must have put up quite a fight,” Tlezjoy remarked.


14 05 2014

When night still walled the window with black, the Earl’s door creaked slightly. A rustle at the door jam told Warren’s entrance. With that perceptive and rousable worthy with him, the Earl turned to sleep.

He dreamed he was back in the earldom, ten years ago. Fazgood was on his veranda gazing at the broad, sunlit lawn, the dirt-patches still showing where the traps had been laid. Beyond the lawn, beyond the wood-and-barbed wire barricade, laborers were building the brick wall higher. He looked down and discovered he was in a white muslin suit, sprawled in a cushioned wicker chair. His knuckles were smooth with youth.

He thrilled, I’m young again!

A glass tumbler of brown liquid was in his left hand. He sipped. Sharp and spicy Birqmuirish tziembroask smoldered down his throat. In his right hand, the brass hilt of Kekeltuk’s Protractor cooled his grip. The edges were in the scabbard of pebbly, unidetifiable skin.

He mocked the device, the Birqmuirish language a welcome surprise for his tongue. “Now I know your plans, eh? Trick me into giving my fortune away to charity?”

Gagged by the scabbard, the treacherous enchantment could say nothing.

The Earl took another fiery sip. “After I get my fill of this tziembroask, you will get your fill of the river! Ha!”

[My liege! My liege!]

Warren’s brown shape sprang and squiggled across the lawn, darting around the brown patches. The Earl felt his smile stretch little-used smile-muscle.

“Good Warren, what does the rabble say of their leader?”

[What do you mean, my Earl?]

“Did you visit the Imperial Blue Barrelhouse? How loudly do they sing my praises?”

[Oh, my liege! You are dreaming we are back in the Earldom! You are imagining I’m in the dream with you.]

Fazgood started, looked at his surroundings, then took a quick, greedy slurp.

He grumbled. “Or perhaps…I should go to the Barrelhouse myself and –-“

[My liege, it is Calzjha!]

Calzjha is not for many years…no, please.

Fazgood could feel his youth drain away.

[Calzjha has broken your agreement!]

There was only one agreement Calzjha ever honored.

Fazgood’s eyes snapped open.

The blessing-engraved wood rafters over his head reminded him where he lay. Instead of the feel of his light muslin suit, his skin was clammy from sweat-soaked clothes. His nose flared from his stink. He raised his head, heavy from feeling so many years slip away.

At the foot of the bed, Calzjha was turned toward the window. Only his head and shoulders were visible above the bedfoot. Fazgood realized that Calzjha had to be standing in a wide, deep stance in order to be so low to the ground. The shoulders quaked with deep, shuddering breaths.

Warren had crawled up the bedsheet and sat by the Earl’s right shoulder, [I returned before Calzjha. Calzjha began speaking about his people’s beliefs, and I’d heard that so many times that I excused myself.]

Calzjha’s hands were held beside the shaking shoulders, and positioned strangely. The thumb and middle finger were held together, and the fingers pointed down, making a graceful arc of the wrist.

Where have I seen that position?

Then Fazgood gasped, Fluxion! He is performing The Sacred Garden Landscaped By Moonlight!

[He entered before dawn and disrobed. He started one of his prayer-dances instead of going to sleep. That wasn’t unusual for him, so I took a nap. Something smelled strange, so I woke up and there Calzjha was! He made no mention! I would have told you immediately!]

The Earl rose upon his knees, his shirt and pants sticking to his skin. The bedboards creaked. Eyes squinted with denial, he stretched around. The Earl peered over the naked shoulder. Calzjha’s face streamed with sweat. Strings of black hair were plastered to Calzjha’s neck. The Earl peered farther.

Calzjha’s new breasts gleamed like round, dewy breadfruit.


The Earl proceeded to curse in every language he knew. He shouted into his arm, then into his pillow.

Calzjha took a final breath, then reached a cup of water and drank deeply.

“A new day to all,” she said, and staggered to the bed.

The young woman wrapped a sheet of cloth around her shoulders.

The Earl swore into his arm and his pillow and a bolt of yellow fabric and into the sweaty bedsheet. Warren maintained a cold, indignant stare throughout.

After many minutes, the Earl took a breath. He picked his head up from the bedsheet. “You will change back.”

“You know from when I had done this in Adanikar: I cannot become male for a month.”

Fazgood felt his eyes would burst from their sockets, such was his rage. But he kept his voice soft.

“Why have you done this?”

“Will you listen to my reasons?”

Through clenched teeth: “It seems I have no choice.”

“Obdurate and Respiration are trapped. They are in distress. She is in a Paragon family. Whatever peace I can give her, she will convey through her associations and demeanor to the kingdom. There is no greater place I can exercise my ministry than in this house.”

“You agreed not to become a woman! You swore to me that you would not become a woman!”

“Because you are uncomfortable with my female aspect. I am sorry for breaking my word, but this is a higher calling. Two people in love and a kingdom all need healing.”

Calzjha stepped to the bedtable. She picked up the pitcher in two seemingly unchanged hands and drank.

Snarled the Earl, “Back in Adanikar I said I needed a bodyguard and you said, ‘That will be my vocation. I will be your bodyguard.’”

“And so?” she coughed.

“Bodyguards do what they are told! They honor their contracts!”

[You cannot hold two vocations! What is your priority?]

“I can minister and be a bodyguard. No one will know the difference in my appearance. My hips are always slim. I always wear my hair long. I will bind my breasts and fill my crotch. I had bought good muslin strips just for this purpose.”

“You planned for this!”

She jabbed a finger. “You say ‘Have the tools for any circumstance.’ I did not know that our host would have such a dire problem. And Obdurate has such an obstacle against a man ministering them.”

Fazgood swallowed the breath that would have told what he saw last night.

“My faith demands that when I see the All-That-Flows being imprisoned or even frustrated, I must help free it.”

[In Adanikar, you cared nothing for the enlightenment of others.]

Calzjha shook her head. “Who in that city could I have helped? Hrikinik alone would take hundreds of my people decades to enlighten.”

The Earl gave the weasel a stare. [Warren, we have a mission after the customary. You and I will decide this circumstance in a bold act.]

[Why…certainly, my liege. I will join you.]

The Earl turned his attention to the newly formed woman. “I will not be at contemplations again this afternoon. Warren will join me.”

Calzjha gasped and sagged. “What will I tell those attending? They have not heard a word about the Ijkallas. I cannot dance today; I am exhausted! You could at least leave Warren to convey help –”

“Ah! You discover that you need my guidance again! That is what I call ‘enlightenment’.”

Calzjha threw the cover off and made to dress. Fazgood suppressed a snarl and turned away.

He tired of contemplating the bolts of expensive cloth at the opposite wall. “What you shall do is request that Respiration gather the army reports on the Ijkallas while we are at customary. You shall take time reviewing them before contemplations. You shall then rearrange the information in your mind.”

She said nothing; Fazgood knew Calzjha feared improvisation.

“When they arrive,” he continued, “pretend to review the papers as if for the first time. That will steal time. Discuss with them your idea for the shared performance with the customary class –“

“Ah!” she gasped with relief. “Indeed!”

“—- and steal more time that way. If you are pressed, then use ornate language, and tell them precisely what is in the reports as if remembering your childhood days.”

“But shouldn’t I add –-“

“Do not add! If you do, you will say something that will contradict yourself or the reports, and those people are much, much smarter than both of us.”

“You can look,” Calzjha said.

She bound her breasts, brow creased with annoyance that Fazgood felt he had to turn in the first place. She had bound her crotch with a simple, clever pattern of white cloth to secure another roll of muslin. Her hands were pale and shaking from her transformation.

“Where are you going today?” she asked.

“I have a task at hand. I work toward its completion.”

“Have you a plan?”

“We shall speak more on this in the evening.”

She put her arms in the sleeves of her shirt, and stabbed her hands forward rudely to put the shirt on. The cuffs still fit well; Calzjha’s race did not grow or shrink in height when they changed sexes.

“How will you shower?”

“The bathhouse is unused in the evening, and the maids are busy with dinner. I will shower then. That is not unusual here. As for my testes, I will bury them.”

Both Warren and the Earl suppressed shudders, but said nothing, as all species have their own ways. There were water newts who could change their sex, without leaving remains. But Calzjha’s species, the Zhif, was created by their god to be a medium of spreading spiritual satisfaction throughout the world. The very blood and flesh of the regenerating Zhif was used as fertilizer, and those plants so fertilized would spread bliss through their newly-lovely fragrance, fruit and sturdy wood.

Fazgood whispered his morning beseeching with added insistence. Not daring to let Calzjha out of his sight, the Earl trotted to the bath, showered, relieved himself with grevious slaps to head and heart, dressed quickly in fresh clothes, and trotted back upstairs. Calzjha was still panting and fatigued, and was refreshing herself by smelling from the fragrance bottles. They walked together down the hall to the contemplation room for breakfast. The Brumpfbasket swayed under Calzjha’s arm.

Why don’t I have a true entourage, such as an army? I tell myself it is so to travel more lightly. But an army doesn’t cause this much aggravation.

They entered the room, and the Earl noted the goodwife’s rested nature.

“A new day for all,” they conceded and they sat.

Respiration gave a meaningful, inquiring look. When the younger maid turned her back, tired and sweating Calzjha managed a clownish face and pulled down the front of her shirt. Though taped, her refreshed endowments still swelled the fabric.

Respiration glanced to Fazgood, hoping for a confirmation. Fazgood glared at his gummytoast and gave a curt nod to be done with it. The goodwife’s eyes widened with amazement and she shook her head with giddiness.

Even the goodwife knows plans before I do. And fresh hells, I hate gummytoast.

*         *         *


After the meal, which was rife with too many meaningful glances and celebratory expressions, they prepared for their days commitments. The Earl acquired his toolbag, filled with the brown robe and a stout knife, the stretch of canvas and the long spikes, placed the skullwarmer in a pocket, and the slivers of metal and ablewood in his cuffs. He joined Calzjha at the foyer.

Outside, the square was already too busy and the sun glared too hard for the Earl to spy any suspicious behaviors. The three took a rickshaw to the customary, Calzjha in a fresh blue suit and carrying the Brumpfbasket, Fazgood likewise in a cotton business suit

As the driver trotted, Calzjha broke the silence that had descended between them:

“Where do you go this afternoon?”

“To further the plan,” said the Earl.

“May I know details?”


Crestfallen, Calzjha whispered, “You may trust me with details of your new plan.”

Fazgood affected contemplation. “Or I may trust you with nothing. Ah! I have chosen!”

Calzjha waited until the point was made.

She protested. “I made my decision…”

The Earl affixed her with a dreadful stare and would have none of it. Calzjha slumped and wiped sweat from her brow.

Warren stayed in his basket and made no observations.

When the rickshaw pulled up to the customary, Fazgood rubbed his face and dispelled his foul mood as best he could. They stepped from the conveyance to the building, and the Earl looked about, noting many on the busy street: the neighbor Rahsic mother; a lanky Adactoid child with a parcel under his arm making to rap upon a door across the street; a Therihe bread vendor with a basket.

Pehzpersist and the Foofaloof met the class and greetings were exchanged. All sat as the customary entered.

Kitpoktik began the class. “What shall we discuss today? Let us begin by discussing the responsibilities placed by the Saline Concord. What of these responsibilities? Tell us, Khuoro.”

Khuoro, who had been flourishing as a student since Calzjha’s tuning, squeezed a finely turned set of notes. “The Saline Concord is a treaty between the Kingdom and the spirits of nature!”

The husband of the married couple, their names were something-something-whatever, gained permission: “It is for our mutual safety and nurturance.”

“What favor do the spirits grant? Nowhere else is there such calm sea. Nowhere else do the insects behave so agreeably. Nowhere else is the rain just.”

Kitpoktik’s wide eyes narrowed, and the Adactoid’s voice became sharp. “Why did the spirits grant us such favor?

“Tell us, Pehzpersist.”

The Earl resented the arch tone: it seemed Kitpoktik doubted Pehzpersist knew even the basics. Fazgood made to ponder, then:

“The Prevaricate destroyed forests and mountains. He fouled the headwaters of the Quand far beyond Alpia, so much that all the forty-seven plummets of the Gezgezlazr Falls flowed thick and stank of death. The spirits knew that the Concord was their best chance at surviving.”

The Earl could note the Adactoid’s small satisfied blink before it continued its lecture,

“What terms are presented by the kingdom? Our discipline. The rules of diet: from eliminating the herding of animals as it wastes land, to our rituals of preparation. The rules of manufacture, which restricts our metal only to mastercrafts and keeps all other materials to the Two Tepid Distillations. The rules of our behavior: from the pools the Booloob can use to foam, to the cremation of all beings at death.

“Who insures the Concord? All citizens insure its sanctity. Those who will not abide the Concord will not be allowed within our borders.”

With a smile, Kikpotik gestured. “The Foofaloof has made acquaintance with Goodwife Greatsergent. Who is her family? Her family is of the Paragons, like the Moakaks, the Hervz, the Yy-Algaedancers and the others. Why are they Paragon? The Paragon families volunteered themselves and their descendants to be living examples of the Kingdom’s sincerity. The Paragons’ examples encourage all in the kingdom to best behavior and sacrifice.”

All in the room bent their heads ruefully to contemplate this responsibility.

“They have a lonely honor,” said the Adactoid. “Theirs is to strive and inspire. It is theirs to prove an example for the soulful, and theirs to live as evidence to the spirits of the kingdom’s integrity.”

Fazgood kept his eyes fixed at the teacher. He would not give Calzjha the satisfaction of a glance.


*         *         *


After the customary, the Earl bade Calzjha well for the afternoon. Calzjha’s look of discomfort and anxiety struck Fazgood as most satisfying. He walked to the corner grocery. He had slept reasonably well, and the toolbag was light in his grip. Warren was within, perhaps dozing. This also struck the Earl as satisfying.

He walked to a vendor and took a leisurely lunch of caramel bean-nuts and tea. The gangly errand Adactoid came to another house and knocked, and found no one at home.

The same errand Adactoid as knocked on a neighbor’s door that morning, noted the Earl.

After an hour of fortification, the Earl relived himself in the proper nook behind the fountain. He walked to the corner grocer and entered.

“Could you tell me the proper way to prepare crab?” Fazgood asked.

From within the toolbag: [My liege! Do you mean to steal the moosecrab today?]

[We just may.]

Unaware of the dire conversation, the kind purveyor jotted down a note for the length of time to boil, and what herbs to season.

The Earl asked, “And so would such preparation work for all crab parts? For all crabs?”

The grocer declared it a splendid method for all seafood.

The Earl smiled and watched a basket lined with pitch filled with sawdust and ice. The grocer tucked six of the blue-shelled nippers within and buried each under a handful of ice. Vials of vinegar, paprika, met-met and nutmeg nestled inside.

“Have you moal flakes?” the Earl asked knowingly. “They take the bitterness from the vinegar.”

A small bag of moal flakes was added. Fazgood gave Pehzpersist’s flabby smile and gracious thanks.

[Good squire, I have changed the plans. I cannot cook in the keep. Too many uncertain behaviors there.]

[Where would you find a kitchen?]

[I will ponder that more.]

Warren was quiet, which Fazgood knew meant pensive.

He walked out of the grocery and closed the door. The street was busy and bustling. No plug hats. Another errand child knocking at a home two doors down. A Exult answered. The child, a thick-set coal-black Rahsic girl, and the Exult conversed, then the child turned and trotted up the street.

Fazgood hailed a rickshaw. The ice basket and bag were bundled beside the Earl and they sped off. Once in motion, the Earl nestled the folded canvas onto the ice to keep in the cold.

“God-pox!” he declared.

[What is that you say, my liege?]

[What I say is ‘god-pox!’ I say that to the customary about the lonely Paragons. Any attempt to escape a prison is better than enduring it. She has nerve and brains. She would do well in the world.]

Warren poked from the toolbag and turned his face full to the Earl.

[Respiration is determined, but not resourceful. She is trapped by their high esteem.]

Fazgood reflected upon last night’s dream. After being blessed with title and lands, it took less than a decade for the Earl to flee his holdings.

“Eh, resourcefulness. There is that.”

[And she does not want to see the city destroyed.]

[Come now! I’ve ruined a couple of cities and I’m still healthy. This is as treacherous a city as any other. Surely you cannot be revering the architecture!]

The Earl looked past the rolling bastlements of the Exhus gate and spied a perfectly edged garden. [There are many cities with juicy construction, squire! There is Birqmuir City with the Imperial Palace!]

[Birqmuir City has many impressive buildings, but the populace is full of brutes! Even the scholars and actors labor single-mindedly for war.]

[We were discussing buildings.]

[Forgive me, but we are discussing civilization: the betterment of souls, my liege.]

Smiled Fazgood, smug that Warren walked into his trap: [And the Three Cities are dedicated to the betterment of souls, squire. And there are three of ‘em!]

[The Three Cities are learned and the people are kind, but they barely have paved roads. In a century, the Three Cities will begin to make their mark in the arts and knowledge. Knowledge based upon the teaching of Harmonium.]

Along the arterial in Cliffside-Bastles were the buildings of commerce and trade. These were newer constructions faced with elaborate matrices of brick. Of one building, Fazgood counted nine floors. These were taller than any in Birqmuir and rivaled the huge dilapidations in Adanikar.

The Earl argued. [If it is accomplishment and teaching we discuss, then why not Adanikar? The City of Sounds has the most accomplished wizards. The colleges and plazas are as large as all of Harmonium.]

The weasel sniffed. [I believe the Earl jests. Even silly Calzjha assesses rightly about Adanikar; it has all the trappings of civilization, but its grand days are past. I believe you described it as “a fixed, pitched riot with sewerage.”]

Back at the Earldom, he had given Warren the job of Chief Litigator for very good reason.

The squire leaned from the basket and pressed further. [Harmonium is the apex of civil life! Could you imagine a dozen races living peacefully anywhere else? The Adanikarese do not even like each other, and the Emperor –- may his name be eternal –- would have exiled at least eight races or made war with them. Harmonium is the only true and enlightened city, with the possibility of those of the Abdurynes, and they are near civil war.]

The Earl tired of the argument. [The Kingdom allowed my mentors to burn to death.]

There was nothing thought. They passed under the gaily-painted, wide gate of Golden Utilities.

[You have told me many times, my liege. I am sorry for that. But for us to allow harm to this city…. My Earl, you wouldn’t take your revenge with the mask? Destroy the Kingdom by exposing the hypocrisy?]

The Earl started at Warren’s conclusion. Then around a turn was the Amusatorium, the glass reflecting the sun like a huge jewel.

He looked away from it, uncertain.

The rickshaw stopped. The Earl rose from the seat and paid the driver. He set his bag and basket down and watched the driver jog back toward the city. Through the summer haze, the red roofs tricked the eye and seemed to ripple like streams between banks of lush green. Beyond was the copper gleam of the Secure, unconquered and perhaps unconquerable. Beyond all, just peeking over the far right rise of the wall, was a sliver of pink from the Citadel.

“But why am I always the one to put my tongue out to see what’s been pissed on?”

[The world uses you poorly, my liege.]

Fazgood reached down and gave his accomplice a pat on his neck.

“I have a friend I’d like you to meet, squire.”


Within the park, the Earl noted that there were more beings that day than before. Also, he was puffing quite a bit from carrying the basket and the bag.

Damn Calzjha to most unfortunate hells! He was –- she was supposed to be carrying these!

He had an ache in his shoulders by the time he struggled to the pool with the moosecrab. The crustacean of note sat on a rock just beneath the wind-rippled surface. The tops of its swept-back antlers and its eyestalks barely emerged the water.

Then Fazgood noted the Adactoid errand child. Fazgood turned and walked into the park quickly.

[Keep an eye out during our work, squire. We are being followed.]


[Our inspector has errand children following us. That Adactoid was across the street this morning. The child must have gotten curious about the bag. That means someone else is around to follow while it poked around in the bag.]

He trotted through the gate.

The Earl walked straight past the Cathedral for the Skywards and into the home of the tremblar. The smell of rain was thick. The wind tossed his hair as he entered.

Behind the hornwood bars, the tremblar lay at the far corner. Otherwise, the room was empty.

I thank you, Zhazh! I thank you, exalted alumni!

He took Warren from his pocket and placed him inside the bag. “If anyone opens it, scream at them. I will return.”

[Where do you go? The rain is almost here!]

“I need a seedcone!”

He dashed back across the courtyard and found a seedcone vendor. He bought two and received his change as a wet wind made the vendor’s parasol spin. The Earl dashed through the visitors looking for shelter and made his way back to the tremblar house. Both weasel and bag were undisturbed.

The Earl paused. He took a deep breath, put his hands out to his sides with finger spread. He fished a comb from a pocket and carefully swept his hair back into place. He twirled the comb and tucked it away.

“Now,” he said.

Warren dashed to the open door and stood watch.

Fazgood plucked the hornwood picks from his pantcuff. With a deft, remembered twist, the lock clicked open. The door was unlatched. He pulled the roll of canvas from the toolbag, opened the door, and unfurled the roll into the pen with a pop!

The canvas opened still doubled-over lengthwise, and snapped out to cover the slope of sand. The Earl pulled the edge of the canvas past the doorway to the stone floor. With his left hand, he fished and scooped the spikes from the bag. With his right, he pulled the skullwarmer from his jacket pocket.

He found the seams between the floorstones, held a spike and hammered the spike through the edge of the canvas with about a handspan of the tough material to spare. Three more were hammered in short order. The tremblar turned his great gray head.

The Earl swung the door open and snatched up a seedcone. He broke off the tip and flipped it to the large beast. The sand around the tremblar trembled, and it glode forward on the vibrations to the morsel. The candy bounced into the animal’s maw.

Fazgood broke off large pieces and tossed them in a line progressively closer to the open door.

Outside, there was a crack! Rain rattled and sprayed across the doorjam.

[The rain lasts two-tenths-of-an-hour, my liege!]

“Come on! Have some tasties, you landslide!”

The tremblar’s appetite for the candy was well-whetted, for it followed the trail up to the canvas. At the material, it stopped and puzzled.

The Earl whistled. The tremblar looked up. Pieces of the other seedcone landed upon the canvas.

The creature lurched forward onto the slope. Instead of slipping back on unsteady sand, the tremblar gained purchase on the canvas and undulated up to the door.

The canvas began to rip around the spikes.

Almost within arm’s reach. The Earl dropped a piece outside the cage door, then another piece just behind Warren. A torrent buffeted his back.

The canvas ripped along a seam. The creature surged forward. The cloth ripped away from two spikes. The tremblar’s delicate lips reached to the piece of seedcone just outside the door.

The canvas ripped from another spike. The Earl swore and lunged to hold the cloth. But the tremblar lurched forward and its bulk landed in the doorway. The brickwalk thundered under it and rose as a cloud of brown dust.

He tossed the seedcone out the door. “Praise all bastard gods!”

Grabbing basket and bag, Fazgood stepped with Warren outside the house.

The Earl tucked Warren into the bag and dashed over wet, shining bricks to the courtyard. The tremblar’s head poked from the doorway, and it roared forlornly at the rain.

Fazgood splashed across the empty courtyard to the crab pool. The moosecrab stood upon the rock. The crab’s pincers were larger than Fazgood’s hands, and sharp. The Earl placed the bag upon the stone pool-edge.

Fazgood vaulted the edge and landed in the water. He swallowed some and choked upon the brine. He surfaced and found himself face-to-eyestalk.

The crab did not move. The Earl took a breath, then threw the blanket over it. He seized it the easiest way possible, around the sides. Clumsily, the crab dragged himself aside as Fazgood pulled himself from the water.

This is mad. This is mad. This is mad.

He tumbled over the edge and grabbed the brown Pathetics robe from the bag. A rush of mist struck his eyes, and the clouds lightened to gray.

Warren leapt back into the bag. The Earl tucked the toolbag under the crook of his arm. He took the basket and tilted it to the pool. He scooped out half of the ice in the basket, crabs and all. He placed the moosecrab atop the ice basket. Joints aching, the Earl shambled for the exit.

There was a burst of glass as loud as lightning, and another roar from the tremblar.

At the exit was a refuse cart. Placing his burden upon it, he scurried to the road.

Do not look over your shoulder. If you look over your shoulder, Zhazh will be there laughing…

[My liege! The sky is breaking!]

At that, there was one last puff of spit-like precipitation, and the rain was gone.

Fazgood quickly scraped ice from the basket and placed it into the toolbag. He buried the antler in the ice, then set two crabs atop it, alongside the kitchen knife and the spices. He shook the loose ice from his hands, grabbed his comb and combed his hair. He picked up Warren and the bag, then limped up the slope to the Amusatorium.

He was tempted to rest and have some tea, but knew he must be gone from Golden Utilities and quickly.

He opened his jacket and Warren crawled into the pocket. He walked through the hedge garden around the upriver side of the great construction, then exited near the Amusatorium entrance. A rickshaw arrived, and the driver looked at Fazgood’s drenched clothes. “Ah! Did you get caught in the rain?”

The Earl climbed inside. “Indeed! Terrible!”

“That happens so often to people!”

As they trundled off, the Earl thought, [Had I needed that basket all the way to the Amusatorium? Such a detail would not have passed me by.]

Then he cried out in despair!

[What is it, my liege?]

[The relish! The damned relish! All of that planning, and I left it in my room! How could I have forgotten? I am unraveling, Warren! I am unraveling!]

To that, the squire could give no comfort.






6 05 2014

Fazgood’s thought was to Warren, [Stay upstairs with Calzjha.]

The Earl used his surprise as part of his affectation, and stammered. “Ah! The…the Scout Brigades! How can I possibly help you?”

“Please, good aspirant,” the fellow smiled warmly. “There is no reason to be concerned.”

But his eyes looked deep at the Earl.

He’s appraising me, thought Fazgood.

The Earl made his made his smile more rubbery and squinted more. He took the opportunity to assess the inspector as well.

The Inspector was a stout, pale Therihe man, a half-a-head taller than Fazgood, with curls that gleamed copper in the lamplights of the foyer. His nose was straight and skin clear, but around the eyes and mouth the skin were creased. His hands were well-manicured, thick, with only little, old scarring around the knuckles.

He can fight a bit, but doesn’t have to. You don’t get to be an Inspector at his age. Inspectors are usually fifty years or older.

Respiration drew up. “Why have you come to my door, Inspector?”

The scout lowered his eyes. “Goodwife Paragon, I wanted to extend the apologies of all brigades for our scouts’ evil behavior.”

The man’s warmth was broad, confident, authoritative.

He is ambitious! Though that tells nothing. He could merely be sucking up to a Paragon when he discovered the Foofaloof had her favor.

The goodwife smiled. “That was two nights ago, so I have been told.”

“A day was lost in locating the offended party. A terrible inefficiency on our part. We apologize for that as well.”

“I believed you were to be in mourning for your magnate, Inspector,” her voice hardened. “We had heard the throng at the Plaza from our windows. Would he condone your shirking his service?”

Her tone had a polite severity to it. Fazgood wasn’t sure if she was belaboring the Inspector about his responsibilities, or because the thought of someone escaping obligation made her jealous.

“The magnate,” said the Inspector, “had declared courtesy to citizen-aspirants to be a high priority. I felt he would have condoned a few minutes away from his ceremony.”

“You had interrupted our dining.”

The Inspector bowed again. “I apologize again. My only desire is to fulfill my sworn duties with efficiency.”

His efficiency trounces her convenience.

It perturbed her to do so, Fazgood saw, but the goodwife turned to the Earl for subtle guidance.

“Would the Foofaloof be averse to speaking with the Inspector?” she asked.

“I will gain the Foofaloof’s attention, and bring him here.”

[And get this over quick.] the Earl thought to Warren, [The longer this Inspector is here, the more of a chance for someone to slip.]

Calzjha was cued for a dramatic entrance by Warren, and strode down the stairs. Warren the Brumpf stayed upstairs in reserve; this was a practice, encouraged by the Earl, that in uncertainty one of the three should always stay concealed.

At the bottom of the stairs, the young man arched an eyebrow to Fazgood. “Is there business to attend, Pehzpersist?”

Fazgood stretched his smile and bowed slightly. “Foofaloof, I introduce an inspector from the Scout Brigades. I apologize, Inspector. What is your name?”

Said the Inspector pointedly to Fazgood. “I am Inspector Mehzadapt. I represent the interests of the Magnate’s office.”

That name….

The Earl had always disliked all of the Mehz clan. Now he couldn’t place why.

Calzjha said, “Our condolences to you at the passing of your Magnate.”

The Inspector bowed in gratitude. Then he looked up at the Foofaloof in surprise.

“You…good aspirant…sent two scouts to hospital?”

Fazgood smiled. “The Foofaloof is an artful fellow.”

“Indeed,” the visitor blinked. “And we had heard that you were quite the throw at the arcade, aspirant Pehzpersist. I apologize for the scouts’ ruining your evening.”

“It was an ease,” the Earl said cheerily. “Once those scouts were thrashed, our spirits improved.”

It warmed him to see the Inspector seethe a little.

Mehzadapt then turned to Calzjha. “On behalf of the Scout Magnate, I apologize for the behavior of the two scouts who assaulted you.”

“And were then thrashed,” interjected Fazgood.

“Please, good servant,” Calzjha warned. “Good inspector, I accept the apology, and hold no ill feeling towards the scout brigades.”

An earnest smile eased across Mehzadapt’s face. “I am profoundly relieved. I thank you for your indulgence. Goodwife, I thank you for your patience.”

Respiration nodded. The Earl sighed with a broadly affected offense.

A twinge of annoyance slipped from the Inspector. “And I apologize to you. Good servant. Again. Enjoy your meal.”

He backed out of the door, which was held open by Obdurate. Outside, beyond the doorway, another scout waited, head down and hat in hand. Both turned and walked into the square.


*         *         *


“Did you see that Pehzpersist’s nose?” said Mehzadapt. “Pushed around like putty. How many times had it been broken?”

The Inspector walked quickly, his excitement sharpening the smell of the salty air, brightening the glow of lanterns in the dusk, making the laughter of passersby louder and more garish. A Human deputy trotted alongside.

That fellow’s eyes, his hair, his reported throwing at the Amusatorium, his being smaller in height than most; it all holds true to the one I remember.

I saw no surprise or recognition when he saw me. I have changed much, of course, but my name should have charged him.

The Inspector looked at the deputy. “Did you see the soldier within?”

“Yes!” the man said. “I saw his rank! That was the civil adjutant from the Army!”

An army adjutant has access to payrolls, armories, and documents.

“Fetch Varalam.”

“Yes, Inspector.”

The Inspector looked around Lanthornmount Square, and found that the assigned scout for the evening was also at mourning. He determined where the two people would be discrete, and still have a good view of the keep throughout the night.

He is The Comet. He is here as some scion of destruction. I allowed his escape, and now he is returned to destroy, either me or the Kingdom. I shall catch him at its commission. I shall be Magnate.

Perhaps I can put the Paragon and the adjutant of the corps to use as well.


*         *          *


At the keep, the dinner was completed and the maids cleared the dishes away. The evening was spent chatting about the disposition of the Army of Invitation; its number of ships and troops, its great Cumulid, its naval cavalry. At the twenty-first hour, they stood, faced the rose porcelain shrine at the east wall and sang the Royal Anthem. At that, Fazgood took his leave to retire, and all agreed to retire as well. A maid saw Obdurate to the door, and his charade was performed with great familiarity.

Fazgood’s head ached as he walked up the stairs. Calzjha bade the goodwife a pleasant sleep as she continued to her room upstairs. Just inside their door, the Brumpf sat.

The Earl edged along between the packages, bolts of cloth and tottering baggage. He slipped off his shoes and stretched out on his back upon the bed.

Calzjha said, “This afternoon, I took Respiration aside and said I could show her how to best massage and activate a man’s energies. I offered to demonstrate for both she and Obdurate in her room tonight, but she said Obdurate would be shy around a man in such circumstance. This kingdom has such strange perspectives.”

“Set that aside,” said the Earl in a whisper. “An Inspector for the Scout Brigades stood at our door.”

“Yes, that was exciting. But he was here to apologize!”

“The adjutant said every lotcaster in the city has been mobilized.”

“He called it an unusual event. It is coincidence.”

Fazgood sighed and closed his eyes.

Calzjha rose to the door. “Will you sneak upstairs with the Brumpf and I?”

“Perhaps I will join you later. Go to the windowsill. Take one jug of caml-zre with you. Give it to the Goodwife and the good officer.”

“What of the other jug?”

“Leave it for another evening. Heed Warren if he says your voices grow too loud.”

[You are quiet, my liege.]

“I am planning.”

The young man did not say more, and slipped out the door.

The Earl turned the lantern low and dozed. He was aware of himself snoring for a time, then, curious, he cast his mind down the tunnel that led to Warren, as he had when they had escaped the customs gate.

He was in the goodwife’s bedchamber, viewing from the left of the doorway. The room was dark but for the very dim light of a lantern on the rug. Behind the lantern gleamed the opened bottle of caml-zre, the dry, fruity aroma mixed in the air with, something sour…musk? Sweat?

Calzjha’s whisper. “Do not worry about the result. Just feel.”

The three were seated on the bed, each leaning upon the other. All were naked to the waist.

Obdurate’s bald pate shone on the left. He is leaning on his elbows toward the foot of the bed, his legs tucked almost into a curl. Beside him, Respiration massaged his back and neck. She pressed her thumbs gently into the vertebrae between his shoulders, and glided her hands over muscles that were solid and strong.

Calzjha massaged Respiration’s back.

“Press once more,” he said. He kneaded his thumbs into Respirartion’s back. Her head leaned back and her mouth twisted from pleasure. She touched Obduarte the same.

Warren was obviously too distracted and disturbed to sense his liege was within his mind. The Earl cursed himself for watching. He had enough to think about without all of this getting his blood up.

Fazgood had long given up understanding Calzjha. There was no lasciviousness in the young being; all the sensuality in him was dedicated toward higher purpose.

Years ago, the Earl had told Calzjha of what a voluptuary does, Calzjha was outraged. To take money to heal! To share touch without spiritual responsibility!

He watched the hands slide around shoulders, breasts, hips.

To watch an enlightening act is for my own spiritual betterment, Fazgood considered, then was irked at even trying to fool himself.

On the bed, Obdurate stretched out full upon his stomach. Calzjha whispered something to Respiration, who then stretched full against her lover’s back. Calzjha stretched out full against hers. Beyond Obdurate’s shoulders, undulations began at Calzjha to break and writhe against the soldier.

So it went of many minutes.

“I am sorry, but your presence unnerves.”

Calzjha asked guilelessly, “Is it because of my ability, or because I am male?”

Obdurate nodded as if made purely if languor. “Male. Your touching her disturbs me.”

“I appreciate that you are honest.”

Respiration blinked in a sensate stupor. “Truly, Obdurate! I am doing this for you.”

Calzjha hushed. “Do not deny his emotion. You continue as you learned. The memories of the sense are strong. They may be invoked at any time, and for the body is just as valid as the experience.”

A hand on Respiration’s forearm. “Remember.”

“Just enjoy,” he said to Obdurate.

They nodded, sideways glances to one another.

“For tonight, just touch. As for my male aspect, there are ways to resolve that. Obdurate, perhaps you should activate Respiration.”

He gestured and Respiration lay back. The soldier slowly sat up.

The Earl blinked and returned from Warren’s perceptions.

Yes, I am jealous, Fazgood admitted, She is impressive. But how did she end up in this keep, and married to a criminal! She lacks perspective! Indeed!

And tension has value! I would be a dead man if it weren’t for my tension.

The Earl twisted the lantern’s valve, and lightened the room. He rose, rubbed the remains of his headache, and slipped through the hedgerows of boxes and packages to the window. He stayed close to the side, so as to keep from being observed from outside. Beside the wickerwood box of perfumes and emollients sat the other green jug of caml-zre, its white wax seal still around the stopper. Beside that was the crystal glass bottle of relish with the gleaming gold-stoppered seal.

He looked at the note tied around the neck of the bottle, Hrikinik’s little taunt written in the paper so hard that dimples of letters are on the paper’s back. There was a slight smear of ink on the edge of the back as well, at the bottom of the lower left quadrant.

Such smears were part of a code taught at the College, a means that the writer can convey a secret: Upper-edge right, the message lies; upper-middle edge, confess all to the bearer; and so on.

Lower right: another message is hidden.

Fluxion. If it is a code, I’ll never break it.

No, Hrikinik knows I haven’t the patience for codes or ciphers.

He brought the paper close to his lips and hummed.

He watched the paper. Slowly, the dots and slashes of Adanikarese slipped around the parchment. Now it read in the block-shaped forms of Birqmuirish:


“Never think of this without moosecrab!

Me, Earl of Weiquand”


It was his own careful, straight-stroked handwriting.

He groaned. He had even signed in his secret jesting way, to be certain against forgery.

But I do not remember writing that note, or telling Hrikinik to write a note, or make this relish! To hide a value from myself! How could I be so rude! What sort of game do I mean to play with my time and freedom?

I have always trusted my own council. I must have had a very good reason to play myself a fool.

I’ll boil the crab myself. Tomorrow, I eat the damn thing raw if I have to.



30 04 2014

The Earl and Calzjha stepped from between the houses and onto the street, revealing the moons above the trees. Some windows showed the fluttering of heat pump fans. Other roofs and verandas of houses twinkled with small lanterns, as their residents slept upon them to gain the cool night breeze. The air smelled sweet from the flowering trees.
Fazgood placed Warren on the brickwalk. Now outside the Secure, the three looked up at the Greatsergeant Keep, its curtained windows concealing multiplying scandals. Behind the keep, the green of busynight dimmed into true dark. They turned back to the street. The moon Rezhalla was obscured by clouds, coloring those tumults into the hues of sweet pink moosecrab-flesh.
The Earl exclaimed. “Is there nothing that does not –-!” He caught his shout, and whispered. “We must get that crab.”
Calzjha lifted his foot and flicked wet grit from his cuff. “From what you told me, you could just climb the wall and steal the crab while it is night!”
“The moons are too bright for burglary. Even if it were cloudy, those who work in Golden Utilities sleep on its grounds out in the open air. Imagine that: we splash into that tank, battle my dinner, then retreat while stumbling over freshly-roused civilians.”
Calzjha looked back at the keep. “What was that…thing? How can I ask about this?”
“Warren, please explain to Calzjha.”
The weasel startled, [My liege, do you truly trust Calzjha with such important information?]
[I obey, my Earl.]
He leaned to Calzjha to share the secret. Excitement overwhelmed his disdain.
[Calzjha, it was the Prevaricate! That device in that box was a magicked device of the Prevaricate!]
The Earl nodded. “Good hysterics, squire.”
[We had seen such devices when we were spies for the Three Cities! Those serving the Prevaricate gain their power from masks!]
Calzjha choked. “The –“
“No names.”
[The mask would melt with the agent’s very skin. It bestows hideous powers upon the wearer. The ones we had seen were made of dragon hides, to give power over the dragons of the Three Cities! Another was made of activated ice, and that gave powers over the Hazbirq icecaps!]
“But –“
[The mask we saw was unmistakably made from god-clot! That would give power over the Secure!]
Fazgood said, “So you do see the situation.”
Calzjha looked up and down the empty, moon-dappled street, crestfallen. “Respiration…is a spy?”
The Earl rolled his eyes at such concluding. “No!”
[The general, you tart! The Battle of Lanthornmount!]
Fazgood wagged a finger aloft. “There! Warren sees the beginning of the situation. How did that battle go, squire?”
[Throughout history, it had been believed that the General’s grandfather had led skirmishers outside the Secure and deep behind the siege lines of the Prevaricate’s Governor, and that when confronted by that great villain, the General’s grandfather used guile and fury to make his force seem larger and drive that evil from the field, breaking the siege.]
“Or,” the Earl shrugged. “Perhaps not.”
[These events are believed true by historians all over the civilized world.]
The Earl chuckled. “Truth is seldom a snug fit. Calzjha, all of that warband was either killed or locked forever in babbling despair by magic. Except for one.”
[The Prevaricate and a founding Paragon of the Kingdom! But why would the Prevaricate allow withdraw, allow his slaves to revolt and take thousands of miles all the way to the Alpia Mountains, if he had such advantage?]
The Earl looked to Warren and waited for the squire’s realization. That worthy was crouched a few steps back with a stunned expression worthy of taxidermy.
Prompted Fazgood. “What is the quote, Warren? The ‘Let the Gods’ quote?”
[“And The Prevaricate exhaled his smoke and spake unto the land: ‘Let the Gods build forever; it shall never be as it should. I will make even the finest achievements and even the greatest struggles into the merest poot.’” My liege, I think I’m going to be sick.]
Fazgood whispered. “I think I can say this aloud. He did it, Calzjha, as an object lesson. To take the most perfect society and defeat it through one man’s greed. And the longer the item is held, the greater the disaster and misery when it is revealed. Then he comes back and reconquers and everyone is even more miserable for having had the pleasure of freedom and prosperity and then knowing they screwed it up.”
Calzjha looked around at the houses perfect as they day they were laid scores of years ago, at the streets of uncracked hundred year old bricks, and the trees whose branches and roots never grow to inconvenience, and to the utterly predictable clouds.
“Why not destroy…?”
[Calzjha, a part of the Prevaricate lies within it. It cannot be destroyed. Where could they hide it and truly know it to be safe? Bury it in the ground wrapped in despondene? If that box is damaged, the spirits will know the betrayal. This whole kingdom is built on their cooperation.]
They stood in the dappled shadows on the brickwalk, contemplating how enraged the trees would be, and the clouds, and even Eldest Daughter, and how they would vent that rage on the entire Kingdom. Thanks to the Compact, the Kingdom’s navies always sailed in splendid weather, bogs and fogs parted before its armies, the very gnats kept to pest sanctuaries. Through the mutual respect of the Compact, civilization and nature could repel their common enemy. The spirits of nature were not sophisticated. A betrayal by a Paragon would be considered a betrayal by all civilized people.
“Where is the common house for this neighborhood?” said the Earl. “Again they keep the most basic needs secret. The dark house there, I think.”
Fazgood opened the unlocked door, chose a bottle of caml-zre and left payment on the shelf. None stirred from the bedrooms upstairs, why should they? None stole without permission in Harmonium.
Sharing sips, the Earl looked back to the keep. “The concrete of the bedroom wall did not match the rest of the rooms. Some lesser mason added it after and shortened the room, and added the concealments. Most likely that mason’s heart was bled out!”
They sat at a fountain, on a street whose name they knew not, and waited for Rezhalla to sail to the position of the third hour.
The time was spent in manner they found familiar and comfortable, with Calzjha and Warren arguing theories through their thoughts while the Earl glowered into the dark, sipping and contemplating.
They walked back to the Secure as Fazgood swatted concrete-grit from his pants. Weary, they trudged through the back yards, into the canal, and found the recess that allowed them back to the Keep.
They climbed the ladrail.
In the alcove, only one lantern was still lit, its light made the granite walls sparkle. The box rested under its cloth, the perversion within waiting.
They took off their shoes and opened the door. In the bedroom, Respiration sat on the bed alone.
“He went home already?” asked the Earl.
She looked up, roused from her thoughts. “Yes.”
“Have you any liquor in this room?”
“None in the room. None in the home.”
“I say this with respect, but we have to change that. It is a useful substance.”
“I have been considering that.”
Calzjha asked, “Was your evening satisfying?”
The firmness and poise returned to her, but her gaze went to her hands.
“Yes,” she demurred. “It was.”
“I ask because…sometimes when new love has been forbidden, then is allowed, sometimes the thrill becomes a fear.”
She considered that.
“Does the captain know of that device? Does he truly know what it is?” Fazgood asked.
Respiration’s jaw clenched. “He knows. It is why he is desperate. And foolish.”
“You knew of the betrayal and did nothing.”
“What would I do?”
“You have money. You have an entire city filled with ships and carts. Take a package tour with a trunk full of specie and vanish.”
“And go where, Nimblest Man? What magician would conceal me? What nation would give me sanctuary? And who would gain the secret next?”
The words spilled from her: “The General’s lineage is rife with death and insanity. His grandfather led a charge into certain death. His grandmother and his father were known for their melancholia, and died early. His mother…drowned. They all knew of that. The knowledge drove them mad.”
Her eyes gleamed wet in the dark room.
“But for all this despair, my husband is a charming, winning man. All believed and believe still that he defeated this mysterious curse of the Greatsergeants. I had no family, and was a ward of my father’s liege. I wanted to bring a new life to this dark place. Imagine my horror after we wed. Imagine when he dared me to tell.”
All looked to the floor. The Goodwife’s burden now shared, the weight of generations made the darkness heavy as lead.
She touched a sleeve to her eye. “He revels in it.”
The Earl took a breath and rubbed his chin.
Said he, “Whether you believe in me or not, I will not betray you. It would be incriminating to me, and rude to you.”
She looked to the window. “I must believe in you. It occurs to me this evening, gentlemen. You will be but another man I have invited in my room to improve my life. The first was wealth, with horror. The second is love, with peril.”
The Earl listened and sucked his lip, contemplating her woe.
She said, her voice bitter and heavy. “I could see who I will have save me next.”
With an unusual vehemence, the Earl smoldered. “Feeling sorry for yourself will save no one.”
She took a breath and nodded. “No. No, it will not. I just need some rest. I will see you in the morning, gentlemen.”
Fazgood, Calzjha and Warren slipped out the door and shut it. At his feet, Warren listened at the doorjam.
[She weeps, my liege.] Warren’s own eyes glistened.
Fazgood looked to the door, his gaze hard, then looked to the removal of his shoes. [Yes, I imagine she does.]
He turned to the stairs and they slinked back to their room.

* * *

In the dawn, Obdurate showered, the water pouring across his brow, down his chest and body and along his betraying member.
I have gone through all this trouble, and had such a stroke of fortune, that I should fail it.
She had tried consolation last night, but his heart pounded so that it nauseated him. The fire that had burned in every breath, nerve, and cell of his body was gone. From the moment he had watched the Earl with Respiration, there had been a rising apprehension.
He dressed, presented himself with the rest of the officers for exercise, ate, his thoughts in a deep iron silence.
In the lobby of the headquarters, an errand child cried: “Adjutant Childteacher!”
“What?” he snapped. He cared not.
The fluffy Exult stepped forward tremulously, a letter in tiny, ridged fingers.
“A message, sir.”
The officer snatched the letter. The fledgling fled.
The letter had Lacquerfish’s seal at its top:

All abide:
The schedules for the lotcasters in your services are suspended at the convenience of the Palentine. This is without exception. The lotcasters will be boarding at the Terhane Residences near the Citadel. They are not to be contacted except in case of family emergency. All are to deliver themselves without delay.

His woe stepped back. Obdurate remembered Hakek’s relating of the Navy’s assistance to the Palentine in some discerning matter. The corps’ own discerners and lotcasters were all at the Ijkallas with the General, except for one lotcaster who was near retirement, who cast for accounting errors. His curiosity rousing, Obdurate walked downstairs to her alcove.
The old woman greeted her sudden assignment with some surprise.
She snorted. “Something’s swimming, adjunct. The Palentine’s not gathered all discerners in…. Since that rogue hurricane ten years ago? More? Much before your time! Had to find survivors at sea.”
“There is no hurricane about that I saw.”
“No, there isn’t, is there? The Palentine doesn’t do things idly, and no drill was scheduled. You’ve been looking worn, captain. Have you been feeling well?”
“I just need some tea.”
The lotcaster gathered her casting sticks and rolled them in her casting cloth. She wrote a quick letter to her husband for her belongings to be sent to the residences. Obdurate saw her out of the foyer to a rickshaw.
“I will arrange for your mail to be delivered.”
She touched heart and hummed a salute. “Thank you, Captain.”
Obdurate watched the rickshaw trot away.
Just to get away and do your job. What a heaven that would be.
He trudged back inside and up the stairs to his office. His desk already had a stack of requisitions laying in wait for him. He slumped onto his stool.
I have ruined Respiration’s life. I must find a solution. There must be a solution to this.
Have I not done enough?
The young officer sat, mind empty of all but misery. He did not enjoy misery or value its lessons.
What else can I do but this? he thought.
He sighed and considered.
He easily recalled his total from the numeralurgy of two days ago. Could he determine his and Respiration’s fate this way?
No. His method only gave locations in space and time. He would need figures from the mute future to use his method.
Could I try numeromancy? There are so many equations for that discipline, and they are so closely guarded.
Obdurate knew none of them.
The numeromancer gave him one equation; one that was applicable to Obdurate’s job, one that he felt would cause no risk or disruption: The Formulae for Determining The Most Valued Baggage.
How completely, utterly useless I am. Worse than useless. I have destroyed everything. At best, my love is gone and I am imprisoned. And last night was the final, cruelest joke.
Two days ago, two long days ago, while deducing the numeralurgy of “The Nimblest Man”, Obdurate had imaginings. Obdurate had imagined approaching the Earl at some discrete, but public street, and confronting the Earl with the knowledge of his identity. The Earl would have denied all, of course, but been alarmed. Obdurate had imagined inviting the Earl to a nearby hospitality. In a darkened, removed nook of the public room, the Earl would appraise him over Birqmuir whisky concoctions. Despite himself, the Earl would be openly astonished:
“A humble adjutant? Not even a true numeromancer! Remarkable!”
Then the Earl would whisper, “I am here on a matter of gravest importance! I am contracted to the King on a matter of sincere security!”
After a sip of his concoction, Obdurate would coolly make his bargain.
The astonishment would harden. Here was the world-renowned adventurer trapped and forced to bargain with an upstart!
Then the rage would turn to an appraising nod. “Being royalty, I can recognize a noble spirit! Freeing your beloved from her hated circumstance! Splendid! I need someone clever and noble to aid my defense of the Kingdom, and for your aid that I shall relieve you of this General in a manner that humiliates him, but somehow leaves –“
Another stack of requisitions dropped onto his desk. The clerk hummed a salute and walked out of the office, glancing at the stack that already sat on the desk untouched.
I have to do something to get myself in the mood to work.
He sighed, Perhaps the Formulae could loosen my brain for those forms.
He took the number for Fazgood, remembered from the numeralurgical calculations. He divided it by Adanikar and Harmonium’s factors. He converted the distance between the cities to the proper unit of measure, then factored it by the ocean. He remembered someone had mentioned “two months” as travel time, and Fazgood’s arrival date he knew.
He applied the First Formula. The first determined the port of entry for Fazgood’s…most…valued…baggage.
I am useless.
But the numbers filled his mind with something, so he continued.
The calculations were easy. He had been given the numbers denoting the most used ports of entry in the Kingdom. Obdurate hoped one of those numbers would be the solution.
58 and one-third. The Foreign Due of Harmonium.
The Earl must have entered through some Adanikarese subterfuge. That is something I didn’t know, I suppose….
The Second Formula determined the value of the item to the receiver, who he factored as Fazgood. The same values again as the First Formula, a factor for Fazgood’s social status in the receiving port (an exile, whose number was “four-and-seven-tenths”), another for diplomatic relations between the points of transport, and number of entourage.
All of those factors were low, and the low numbers drove everything down. The solution was one-third.
Now this was interesting. “One” was the value of the mortal receiver; if Fazgood had packed himself in a crate and shipped only himself, the answer would have been “one”.
But “one-third”? Fazgood had shipped a large fraction of himself to the Foreign Due?
During Obdurate’s lunches with Mehezgladness, the adjutant had asked the trafficant about the interpretation of a fractional result. Between the sucking of teeth, Mehezgladness replied. “I heard of the circumstance of a soldier. He had shipped his severed, mummified arm for cremation on the banks of the Quand. That must have caused quite a fuss when that package was mislaid!”
Obdurate looked up at the carved rafters of his office and thought, Perhaps the Earl had shipped himself, and Calzjha was already in the Foreign Due, and received the package.
But if that had been the case, then the first equation wouldn’t had been so tidy.
Obdurate reminded himself, This is a man who stole a fortress. And then he returned it.
What could have been in that package? Perhaps it was Warren! But no, a separate being would still count as “more than one”. Despite their connection, Warren would possibly count as “one-and-a-third”, but not as a part of the Earl.
Fazgood’s body seemed healthy and whole. He wrung his memory for any limp or looseness of limb he may have seen on the Earl. Perhaps an inner quality of the Earl had been displaced.
Is such a thing possible?
The young man looked out his office window and over the rippled roofs across the plaza at the clear blue sky, and realized how very, very far away it stretched. For a moment, he realized those wondrous and bewildering distances, to other lands and peoples. He realized there were living beings and societies whose abilities his studious brain could never stretch to imagine, and his soul only yearn to understand.
What could have been in that package? And did he get it back?
And: He broke himself into pieces…for moosecrab?

* * *

That same morning, Calzjha, Fazgood and Warren left before dawn for the customary, and were seen out of the keep under the curious, baleful stares of the maids. Thus morning meal with Goodwife Greatsergeant was avoided.
The Earl walked quickly to awaken his blood. The foot traffic was refreshed and yawning, rather than the intermittent pedestrians of a few hours ago outside the Secure. The still-moist air kept the stinging smoke of peatfires thick in the street. The haze gave the whole of the streets and squares a gauzy, yellow glow.
“We must help them,” Calzjha said flatly.
“You are young. Part of becoming old is knowing doom when you see it. They are in an endgame.”
“You have been in many endgames and have guiled your way out. I read that somewhere.”
Warren gave not one quip or observation. His nose poked from the basket lid and twitched, as was his habit in desultory contemplations.
As they arrived at the customary, there were many inquiries of the Foofaloof. All were very pleased to ask the young man (and also greet his servant of course) about life in a Paragon household. Kitpoktik had tried to be nonchalant about the Foofaloof’s new celebrity. But the excitement proved too much for the customarian, and the old Adactoid took the beginning of the class to reinforce the previous lessons:
“And how does she live?”
The Foofaloof confirmed. “The customarian teaches truly. She does live as simply as we at the customary.”
“And what does she do?”
“She helps others to contemplate fine ideas. The guests at her contemplations all remark that her presence is delightful. That as a Paragon, she…. What was the phrase you said yesterday, Customarian?”
“What was the phrase? ‘The paragon refines the spirit and purifies the devotion.’”
“I often remark to her on what a splendid class and classmates.”
The warmth of the aspirants’ dedication, the greed in the glances of the customarian, and the Foofaloof’s joy in sharing good fortune; all served to make Fazgood’s eyes roll in disbelief.
After the lessons ended at midday, Fazgood and Calzjha parted company, Warren was dozing in the Brumpfbasket. The day was unusually warm, and the Earl was glad to walk about in his usual determined pace, and the feel of what little breeze cooling the nape of his neck. At the Arterial, he watched an ambulatory wail and rumble past, and regretted again that he had eschewed the widow’s clothes, as she would doubtless have been allowed to ride.
At the Malabar Flats Ferry, he presented the guildman’s card, paid, and was transported across to the Foreign Due.
The ferry had the same declaimer as his last trip, perhaps even the same merchants lining the benches. This time, however, they listened to the recitation with rapt expression.
The man recited from memory:

“Up he crawled and wriggled, clutching Blounbirq’s lethal delivery to his breast,
a mere guild magician’s Preservation Wrapping about his body to protect him from the inferno,
dulling it to a smothering warmth.
But the stench of a thousands years of digestion assailed his nostrils even through the enchantments!
The Nimblest Man had crawled this vilest hell.
Even the slightest tickle felt by the slumbering Abomination,
As an ant in our own sleeping tracts, spelled the brave boy’s doom.”

His doze ruined, the Earl listened to the tale and was amused. A few listeners rubbed their throats and swallowed, faces appalled at the risk the boy took.
Fazgood thought, At least that legend still holds: Everyone prefers heroes in throats.
He stepped from the boat and followed the crowd through the gatehouse and into the Due.
He walked the familiar quays, rediscovered a bend in the street he had forgotten, crossed two thick bridges whose names he had still forgotten, and found the alleyway again.
At the end of the alley, the afternoon sun cast upon a weather-beaten, lacquered storehouse. It appeared as if it had always been there, in this narrow way that held no delight, no charge of excitement or significance.
It has been thirty years.
He stepped no farther, not wanting to risk being trapped in the alleyway if he was discovered.
There would be no cinders, no keepsakes; all would be long gone.
He remembered most of their names: Uzkuk the Grand, the big red-haired Birqmuir man; Iqiar from an island north of the Hermitshells, who always smelled of sweat and beer; others if he wrung his brain. He had realized long ago that he couldn’t remember them, even Uzkuk, who had been their leader, could not even remember their faces clearly much less their natures. But he knew they were good beings who deserved better.
He had imagined there would be at least a sign to warn others.
What would the sign read? A placard as in the zoo:

Know This:
The Death of the Eleven Circles Rebels!

Nineteen incredibly foolish beings burned to death on this site after trying to get the foreign-born equal rights to Scout Brigade membership.
But one apprentice escaped! Have you seen him?

But he had not even a sign to drink to, or piss on.
He did remember the day they died. Under the floor of that burning building, wriggling into a sewer pipe, crawled along and out to the street. The fire had leapt bright red-orange, fluttering and waving like a terrible monster, trapped and contained by the waiting Scouts, and the Public Worksmen who had kept it alight but had exulted the waves and undulations of water out from the river and onto the roofs of the surrounding buildings.
The fire, how had it started? They had been trapped, how? Betrayed? There had been someone. I knew every detail, even back in Adanikar so few months ago, and the anger was so hot and satisfying! Why can’t I remember?
The moosecrab craving swept upon him once more, crushing all thought.
Juicy antlers, sweet flesh melting in his mouth. That relish! It would be more tasty with Hrikinik’s relish!
Then: And I am here to eat seafood.
I am mad.
He gathered himself for the walk back to the pier. Thankfully, a different declaimer spoke of spice and dye prices on the ride back.
A few zreces bought a quick rickshaw to Golden Utilities, and from there a quick walk to the Garden.
He very studiously avoided the crab pen. He was indeed assessing the resources and landscaping, looking at the buildings, the large wheeled bins for gathering rubbish, the idleness of the keepers, the lawns behind the buildings where the grass had been pressed down from where workers had obviously slept.
As the sixteenth hour poured, he stood under an awning, savoring a sour pickleball.
After the rain, a rickshaw ride back within the Secure, along the Arterial to the Third Tier along the river, then purchases: from a trades supply he bought a broad length of canvas, some slim cast iron spikes, and a small mallet; from a clothier, he acquired a robe dyed Pathetics’ Tan, and two wool blankets.
The foot traffic led to a square, with its own fountain beside a public house. He stepped within and using a minimum of verbage and a maximum of smiling, he had recommended to him the best distiller of caml-zre, a sharp, sweet Therihe liquor he hadn’t tasted in years. He bought two jugs, then had all of his burden loaded into a rickshaw.
Back to the Greatsergeant Keep. He now noted the gay yellow banners atop the keep and the bright flowers in the pots outside, and chuckled at what such cheer hid.
He rapped upon the door.
The keep door opened, and the pinch-faced maid said. “Your…master has been seeking you.”
The Earl noted the hesitation. Word of Pehzpersist’s love with the Foofaloof had spread to the servants.
“Ah!” declared Fazgood. “Indeed! I shall offer my apologies! Could you help me with this?”
He thrust the smaller bundle of clothing and tools into her hands. It did his heart good to see her severity turn to anger as they carried the goods upstairs to the increasingly crowded bedroom.
The maid led Fazgood down the hall to the Contemplation Room. In the hall, Fazgood noted the murmur of lively conversation. The maid opened the door.
Laughter rang against the stone. The room was lit orange with the sunset through the window. The Goodwife and the adjutant sat watching the Foofaloof. The audience of two was laughing, weak from long durations of doing so.
The Earl noted that even Warren was bobbing from side-to-side on the floor and squealing.
[He is performing that dance where the heron is stealing fruit from the drunk farmer! It is so base, but it is so funny!]
Calzjha was swaying his head frantically, arms swooping as wings, stepping high and staggering, playing the heron with his bill thrust inside the farmer’s jug. Soon would come the newly-emboldened heron’s challenge of the farmer to a duel.
While laughing, Respiration and Obdurate both turned and noted the Earl. Their laughs subsided notably, and they turned their attention back to Calzjha.
The Earl discovered that he had missed the sound of a human woman laughing. The sound of Respiration’s chiming laugh felt like a drink of water after a long thirst. The realization annoyed him.
But Calzjha’s saucer-eyed, perplexed heron made for good distraction, and indeed the story sharpened his taste for the caml-zre tucked away beside the gold-topped bottle of relish in his room.
The heron smacks the farmer fiercely with a wing and sends him sprawling. Victorious, the heron dons the farmer’s hat and demands the farmer begone. The stunned, astonished farmer staggers away. The heron sits as a human, crosses his ungainly legs, and puzzles over what to do with his victory. As he eats the last wine-soaked fruit, he passes out with feet in the air.
The audience stood, their bright song of appreciation reverberating the room. Calzjha stood, crossing his feet and dipping to show gratitude for the applause.
Respiration looked at Fazgood, and her eyes narrowed to a hawk-like sharpness.
And it was at that moment, the thought of a heavy object in hand, that Fazgood realized that he had approaching the problem of cooking the crab from the wrong direction. He groaned from the simplicity, and could feel his sister mocking him.
Calzjha chattered exuberantly, as usual after a performance:
“The house was in a such a foul mood! Respiration had been gloomy! Obdurate angry and pensive; I think frustrated, but so! And you had not returned! The guests at Contemplation had been desiring our report about the Ijkallas! But I cannot –-“
He used the Adanikarse: “I cannot connive. That’s your strength!”
Back to Rashic, with emphatic discretion: “So…the Brumpf…showed usefulness and gave the inspiration that I dance! The idea was so good, we didn’t dare bother you!”
The Goodwife said testily, keeping pretense for the sake of the two maids organizing the room for supper. “Our contemplations today might have been a description of life in the Ijkalla Islands. However, you were not here to organize our notes. Foofaloof, affections make your employee lax. I would not note this, but you said we should speak freely as peers.”
Calzjha lowered his eyes in respect, but still spoke brightly. “I desire your candor above all. He is terrible.”
Respiration would not be swayed by agreeable enthusiasm. “I would arrange performances for friends, if he would –“
“Ah!” sighed Calzjha. “If it were no inconvenience! Could we invite musicians? Our friends at contemplation could recite! Perhaps a theatre could be rented –“
I need to get this damned crab, quick.
At the stairs, the oldest maid was flustered.
She said. “There is a visitor for the Goodwife. He wishes to pay respects to the Goodwife and the Foofaloof. I told him it was not the proper time, but he insisted.”
Respiration’s normal reserve was removed, and she walked downstairs to the door. “Who would it be?”
At the bottom of the stairs, a figure waited in the anteroom.
“Goodwife! Citizen aspirants!”
The Earl recognized the tone of voice that rang “unctuous official.” He fixed Pehzpersist’s smile firmly upon his face.
A man stepped within the receiving room. He was a middle-aged, pale Therihe with thick red hair. Wrapped around him was a spotless, well-tailored blue coat of fine cotton. His gaze was firmly fixed on the Earl.
“Good citizen aspirant,” the visitor said. “I am here to extend my heartfelt apologies.”
In his fingers, he gently held a plughat before his ascot, striped with five colors.

“MAD EARL FAZ” CHAPTER TWELVE (A Horror Is Discovered Before Sexing)

16 04 2014



Fazgood remained in sight of his new patroness, while keeping Calzjha from flirting too much with the guests. He sneaked amused glances at her fuming, befuddled lover. After the guests bid farewell, the oldest maid showed him to his new room in the fortress.

His new abode was in a guest bedroom that had been not occupied in almost five years, one that had been adapted from a guard quarters. The room was on the second floor, the same floor as the receiving room where the contemplations were held. The third and highest floor was the master quarters. The first floor had the servants’ rooms, the kitchen and storage rooms.

Members of the Greatsergeant ancestry glowered from resin-and-ink paintings along his room’s white spackled walls.

The Greatsergeant household staff were three people, cousins gnarled with age whose family had been in the Greatsergeant household since the raising of the Secure. There were the older maid, a wary handyman of a more recent epoch, and a pinch-faced cook; all three gave terse protestations at the interlopers, but went about the task of following their mistress’s orders to the minimum degree. Thin drapes were cast across the windows in order to keep the green of busynight from disturbing slumber. An old, plain washbasin was brought in, along with a table mirror of sufficient size.

Fazgood whispered to his patroness. “My household staff at Weiquant were professional layabouts. These three make my bunch look ambitious.”

Respiration gave a grim nod.

The Sixteenth Hour Rain pounded and drifted away, and Warren and Calzjha had not returned from the Customary. Just when Fazgood feared his cohorts had been arrested, from outside the window came a cry:

“Greetings to all! I speak to you in the Greatsergeant Keep! Your most grateful guest and newest and fondest friend has arrived!”

The oldest maid pulled away the drape and let it fall again.

She snipped. “It is the other guest.”

The Earl took the curtain from her hand and said, suppressing sarcasm, “Thank you, good housedame, for that most illustrative detail. Allow me.”

Respiration chuckled to her lover, who became glummer still.

In the courtyard below, Calzjha was surrounded by surprised and amused on-lookers. He and two laborers wrestled packages, parcels and luggage from a second rickshaw.

Calzjha exclaimed, “I took a moment to stop by the street of clothesmakers, oh…”

He turned and asked a young mother. “What is that street called?”

“Brightpiece Street?” she blushed. Her little girl gaped at the stranger.

“You are so helpful! Brightpiece Street! I bought a few items to have tailored. What a wonderful city this is! Such craftsmanship!”

The Earl gritted his teeth at the spending of money. “Very good, Foofaloof!”

Downstairs at the entrance, Calzjha supervised the train of porters bringing the luggage to his room. He insisted they take a gratuity as well. The staff of the keep stood in shock, occasionally yipping admonishments against dirt and clumsiness.

Warren leapt from his basket and scurried to the wall beside the Earl, [I tried to stop him, my liege, but he was like a great wind! A wind with bank permissions from the Atmospheric Union!]

[Do not fret, squire,] Fazgood glanced at his companion. [He is being our distractor.]

The weasel blinked, [Garish poverty is to our advantage, my liege?]

[His enthusiasm is our best disguise. Who would suspect a criminal near someone this goofy?]

[Ah! At last he shows value.]

A cask filled with rattling bottles was carried by between two poles. The fragrances from the cask was so fresh they stung the nose.

Warren sneezed. [Incenses and perfumes! One would hope our fortune holds out until your ruse is done, my liege.]

[All this baggage gives the impression of a long stay. You and I left this much and more behind when we quit Weiquand. In the meantime, all will be too happy to take our appearance as truth, for they will find his presence too exhausting to ask questions. And even if they do look at us, Calzjha’s servants will be all they see.]

Looking about the bustling, fortified surroundings gave the Earl cause to reflect: Two weeks ago, we were sweating on a ship pressed by the odd and shabby. A week ago, we were running connivances in a crowded quarantine compound, surrounded by the King’s army. Yesterday, intimate strangers in a customary with paper walls and the brigades on my neck. My heart is fluttering. I had forgotten what it was like to be running rampant.

Obdurate pressed upon Calzjha. “The wait was interminable. I had thought, perhaps you had been arr –”

Calzjha interrupted the indiscretion with a beaming smile. “Had you worried about me? The relocation from the customary caused an uproar! I had to promise all that Pehzpersist and I would be back tomorrow.”

He cried across the receiving hall to Respiration, “And Goodwife, at the mention of your name, all spoke of you in the highest regard! I told the aspirants and customaries that I would praise their natures to you; consider it so, as they are all so pleasant! So I say now ‘The Three Moaltrees’ contains pleasant people!’”

[My liege, he would not know if he were followed! He would not know what to look for beyond plughats.]

The Earl bobbed on his feet, barely suppressing The Fourteenth Dance of Glee: The Egret In Love.

[Squire, it does not matter! We are the guests of a Paragon family. Our hosts are beloved and honored above all others. Scouts would not dare meddle with us. Even the police can approach us only with Royal mandate.]

Watching workers stumble in with bolts of cloth, the weasel considered. [Ha! Delightful! Yes, that is true! Still, it worries.]

Calzjha saw Respiration fingering a bolt of scarlet flannel, and he went to her side. She greeted Calzjha, and looked to the Earl, her expression seeming alternately overwhelmed and suspicious.

Ah. She still needs to be convinced. Yes, well, how much would it take to convince a sheltered housewife? What will I have to do, open a pickle jar?

A laborer looked out the door. “What’s this?”

In the courtyard, all were in a commotion of conversation, more so than at the Foofaloof’s arrival.

The maid stepped outside and prevailed upon an errand boy. “What has happened?”

The boy pointed. All eyes followed to a Booloob, its bubble swimming with the saffron of the Public Works department, those who enforce the Royal will. The yellow sphere drifting above the crowd in the breathless air.

“– has passed. Of the Paragons, of the most beloved, let us pause, for the Magnate of the Scout Brigades has passed. Of the Paragons, of the…”

As the crowd before them brought hands to their sides and bowed, Fazgood felt a whoop of joy surge and clenched his throat.

The scouts will be distracted for ten days of mourning! Has my luck been dumped all upon this afternoon! All praise every god!


*         *         *


In the Plaza of the Supurb, a great mob of plughat roughs had converged and were growing in number by the moment. Maroon ascots stood next to yellows and blues. Pale number-coaxers with scarred hijackers. Wobbly, perfume-powdered Booloob sensuaries with sly Exult obligationists.

Wails came from scarred lips, from liquor-hoarsened throats, from membranes of expression coarse from indulgence. Within the eight neighborhoods, there lived and labored over five thousand Scouts, and at the end of a magnate’s life, all had to pass within the entrance of the headquarters, and pray before the mural to show respect.

Within the crying mob, Mehzadapt jostled inside a wedge of his deputies, each awaiting the time within for prayer. Beside him, Varalam pushed crowds away.

The Inspector bellowed, his voice lost mere feet away. “Where is he?”

Varalam creaked in dismay. “Where is he? He is in the most awkward position possible.”

“What? Why is this?”

“Our last suspect is sponsored by the Greatsergeants.”

One of the Paragons? He is here for a few days, and he is friend of one of the Paragons?

Bewildered Varalam shook his head. “It has passed beyond the likes of us!”

What could this man do? A great theft? A subversion of government? Extortion! Some grand obligationism!

Mehzadapt felt his throat roughen. “We must visit this Foofaloof and offer our apologies!”

“There is a week to mourn the magnate.”

“We will visit!”

Varalam startled at this insult to the Magnate’s memory.

Mehazadapt leaned close. “Before his illness, the Magnate himself ordered me to see the case of this stranger through to the end, no matter the cost!”

The Adactoid stilled at the weight of the words.

He seized Varalam’s lapel. “What have they in retinue?”

“What have they?”

“Yes! Surely servants, or errands boys have been hired!”

“None have been hired, sir! They travel simply!”

And quickly. With no retinue who can subvert or betray them. And they strike well and infiltrate towards great sensitivity.

“They do travel with an animal, sir. A named creature that knows laws. A sleek brown-striped animal, like a rat but longer.”

The Inspector looked behind at his story-loving deputy, hearing the words he spoke but yesterday: He is named Fazgood like in the book…the slayer of the Abomination…it’s a ratty-looking thing called a weasel.

Mehzadapt felt his face grow slack. Is Fazgood back for vengeance? To have revenge on me? But why involve the Greatsergeants?

He wrung his brain for all that the foreign reports had told of the Earl of Weiquand.

But he would come straight for a theft beyond measure? The foreign reports were full of this Earl when he was in The Three Cities! Didn’t he steal a fortress? An entire fortress, foundations, stones and all?

Obviously this is The Comet!

But he is also Fazgood, the exile from the Eleven Circles!

His breath came hard.

This could make me Magnate! This Fazgood is an exile from Harmonium, a rampaging menace who is infiltrating the highest of the Kingdom! For his capture, I will get a statue! A monument!

When other scouts saw the Inspector in the plaza, they considered how overwhelmed of emotion he was, and how deeply he breathed to calm himself. It would be hours, well into the green of busynight when Mehzadapt’s turn to the mural came.

After the passage and the keening, the incense and emptying of pockets of all coin and currency, the Inspector next summoned a copy of “The Nimblest Man.” It was that way Mehzadapt learned of Fazgood, Earl of Weiquand: divine-touched rogue.


*         *         *


“You should see this crab,” the Earl whispered. “Huge! Gorgeous!”

Across the dinner table, Calzjha smiled. “Yes. You have said it is a grand crab.”

Respiration sipped the last of her barley broth. “I have not had moosecrab in a few years time.”

Calzjha refused more rice. “From what my associate said –“ (He maintained discretion for the sake of the servants, they lurked so) “– I thought that the streets swam with them.”

“They are expensive, and my husband keeps the household on a strict budget.”

“Ah,” said the Earl.

Calzjha shook his head. “Your husband is…with my people. In Ijkalla. Would that not make you keeper of your household affairs?”

The Earl looked pointedly to his associate. “Ah.”

In the underlit room, head bowed, the maids waited for the dishes.

“I have just learned,” said Calzjha, taking the hint, “of the Paragons of Saline.”

Respiration assumed a familiar role. “Yes. The Paragon families uphold the traditions of how the Saline Compact is to be followed.”

“These are the rules which all of society follows.”

“Not just the society. The gods and spirits negotiated the agreement as well. It brings the Sixteenth Hour Rain at the sixteenth hour, which deposits the precise amount of moisture every day, until the autumnal equinox, when that season’s weather occurs as scheduled. It allows that insects will be readily fed and housed in neighborhoods and not bore into the dwellings of those who know law. It allowed that during the Siege of Harmonium, our attackers were resisted not only by soldiers, but by quagmires on solid ground, by hail from clear skies, by fogs so thick tremblars could not push through.”

Fazgood beamed. “Their fires could not ignite, their food spoiled upon sight, all chaos something-something from the Se-e-ecure.’ I remember that song now. It was playing…on our first day.”

Respiration motioned for the maid to clear the dishes. She stiffened as the servant brushed past.

They spoke of generalities while they were under watch, of Adanikar already confirmed by witnessing friends, of moosecrab, of Warren-as-Brumpf (upstairs, engrossed in study), of moosecrab, of the contemplations and other spiritual traditions.

It was all the Earl could do to keep his head from thumping the stones, so bored was he. When twentieth-hour came, Fazgood almost shreiked with relief.

“Goodwife, the Foofaloof and I must prepare for our studies tomorrow.”

As they walked upstairs to rest, Fazgood pointed to the waterclock and shrugged an inquiry. She held up a finger and mouthed “First hour.”

To their room they retired. Upon opening the door, Fazgood discovered the room lined with boxes, bolts of cloth, and the day’s baggage. On the bed “The Nimblest Man” lay open for study, and upon that lay the Earl’s scholar deep in study.

“Hail Brumpf! Was our room undisturbed?”

Warren yawned, [The manservant peeked in. He saw me looking at him and eased out quick enough!]

“Your reading a book gave him doubts,” smirked the Earl. “It is best we stay crafty with this lot.”

Calzjha hissed. “That poor woman! This is the sourest home!”

“No wonder she has taken up a hobby.”

“I am sure that soldier is more than some distraction to her.”

“Find me my relish. Squire, how goes your studies?”

The weasel carefully nosed the front cover of the book over.

“Mind how the pages cut,” said Calzjha.

[Gracious of you, but I manage. My liege, this book is a ripe lump of cheese.]

“Take care, squire, that relates to my life.”

[You wrought your own life from artfulness. Someone called ‘Forthright Pewter’ wrought this, I suspect, from his bowels.]

“A harsh assessment.”

[The language is stuffed. Descriptions do not flow as much as they gasp from constipation.]

“Then I will have to belabor Goodman Pewter with a brick.”

[The name suggests a Rahsic man, but it also obviously a pen-name. The writer could be of any race.]

Calzjha took a bottle from the chest of fragrances. “Why is this here?”

He showed the Earl the gold-topped bottle.

“Hiding the precious in plain sight. Please replace it with your bottles.”

“If I rub this vile stuff on myself, I will punch you.”

Calzjha then plucked a tiny bottle of emollient for himself and daubed some upon his hands.

[The details of your life are accurate, my liege. The dates, names, and places are all correct. The author thumps one with drama, but I suspect that is the fashion of these ‘dusk thicket’ books.]

“It is their fashion that I should die, and that sort of presuming annoys.”

[You don’t die in this book, which is a change in the style. You just disappear after the Assassin War in The Three Cities, as you had intended back then, and the book leads one to believe you are dead, or living in guarded retirement.]

The Earl snorted. “That is ridiculous.”

Calzjha sighed. “Yes. Isn’t it, though?”

Warren and Calzjha exchanged a quick, rare commiseration.

Fazgood took off his shoes, sat on the bed and helped Warren set the book upon the floor. “Dim the lights. It is the twenty-second hour. Wake me at the last.”

“Do we skulk?”

“We do skulk.”

The Earl laid his blazer upon a trunk and stretched back, enjoying the beautiful view of sturdy stone walls. “I wonder how she sneaks that clod in. These houses have spirit enough to creak the doors and floorboards if they are not respected.”

Calzjha made a sullen face at the insult of the soldier. He drew the shade of the lantern and cast the room into shadow, the green of busynight shadowing the bars against the window.

The two hours passed. Fazgood rose without needing prompting, noted his shirt was wrinkled and so found a fresh one to wear. Warren took a quick stroll down the hall as the Earl combed and made his case to Zhazh, to all alumni, to the spirit of the house. Perhaps to spite him, the door squealed digestively as they slipped out.

Thought the Earl, [You heard nothing in the last two hours?]

[I heard nothing, my liege.]

The Earl improvised a door jam by prying a piece of metal from the unguent filigree, and bending it in half. He ran a thick black thread into the bend, and slipped both ends of the thread under the door out into the hall. When the three slipped into the hall, the Earl pulled the thread until the bend in the metal held, firm but unseen, under the door. A snooping maid pushing the door would think it secured. A pull of the thread sideways, a knock on the metal jam with a sliver of ablewood, and the jam would come free, allowing them to enter their room.

They crept through the dark hall and up the stairs to the third floor, Calzjha carrying Warren, Fazgood leading, to Respiration’s door.

He tried the latch and pulled. He pulled again. It would not open. He turned to his companions and rolled his eyes.

It was no betrayal. It was no bout of forgetfulness. When the Earl was a member of the College of Incorrigibles, Fazgood had been rated by a panel of peers as The Third Most Effective Living, Tangible, Mortal Thief. When pressed into service by The Three Cities, The Earl had mastered their Bedchamber Guard into greatness as an espionage organization.

But it all makes no difference, because the suspicious trollop wants me to prove myself with a damned lock.

Suppressing a grumble, he slipped past the puzzled Calzjha and dozing Warren back downstairs and into his room. He stripped more ablewood from his cane, another sturdier one from inside a trunk lid, and a piece of wire filigree from the fine carrier of Calzjha’s fragrances. He tucked all within his socks and slipped back into the hall.

Back upstairs he went, his reflexes managing all impatience and anger. Betwixt the door and jam slipped the ablewood and the latch eased up. The door eased open without a sound. All slipped inside.

In the darkness, on cushions before the great bed, sat Respiration and Obdurate. All drew close to whisper.

“We were worried,” said Respiration, lacking any trace of concern. The dark did not conceal Obdurate’s amusement at the Earl’s anger.

Calzjha smoldered. “’An inside job’ means that the person inside does their job. But how did the captain get in?”

“I needed confidence,” she said.

Said the Earl. “Here is some confidence.”

He pointed to the far corner. “The hidden entrance is there behind the parquetry, the one with the corner adjacent the Secure.”

Respiration and Obdurate looked to each other. Obdurate’s smugness evaporated.

The Goodwife nodded. “That does inspire.”

She walked across the room to the aforementioned corner. He slid open a panel of parquet paneling. Behind twinkled an amazing light.



“MAD EARL FAZ” CHAPTER TEN (Alert: Seductions!)

2 04 2014

When dawn of the next morning cast its stark shadow upon the customary, Fazgood and Warren waited until figures moved at the windows. The Earl tucked his loyal charge tucked under his arm and walked briskly across the street. He slid open the front door a little to peek. A maid walked by on her way to the common room. He slipped in and up the stairs as quiet as wind. In the upstairs hall, he edged past the husband of the married couple walking bleary and scratching to the shower. A final slip through his door. He slid it closed and turned.

Khouro the Fabri piled before him. The mossy being curled with chagrin.

Warren dropped to the floor with a thump.

The Earl suppressed a sigh of resignation. “Good morning, aspirant Khouro.”

“Good…good morning,” Khuro squeaked. “I was…here to see…I had just entered…”

Calzjha’s voice trilled from the bedroom. “Good morning, Pehzpersist. How went your morning walk?”

“Splendid, Foofaloof,” Fazgood continued the ruse Calzjha had begun. “This is a beautiful neighborhood. Did you sleep well?”

“Ah. Yes, I did. Khuoro came here to study this morning. I will join you downstairs, Khouro!”

The being fidgeted. “Yes! I will be downstairs! For…for the morning routines! Good morning!”

It was possible that Khouro was downstairs before the door was completely closed.

Fazgood hissed to Calzjha in Adanikarese, “Can you not sex everyone we meet?”

Calzjha opened the door to the bedroom, looking refreshed and relaxed, picking bits of green from his hair. “His people are tactile. He felt nervous in this new city. I used my training to align his energies and bring him to focus.”

“’Tactile’! The Fabri are carnivorous plants. They used to ingest lawful people before joining the Kingdom. Look at your wrists!”

“He took a little blood. He kept to fluids only. The more of my being within him, the calmer he will be.”

The Earl sputtered at that, then shoved images of vines and roots from his mind. “It is a pox to my plan!”

“He entered before dawn. I told him you were out having a walk.”

Thought Warren, [Call this ‘bodyguarding’, does he! Or ‘being a decoy’?]

“Yes! Call yourself a bodyguard?”

Calzjha whispered, “No, you call me your bodyguard. Yesterday was the first time I actually protected you from anything.”

“’Decoy!’ You were to be decoy!”

“Being here, I suppose I was a decoy.”

“Did you expect me to lay here by myself when someone offers himself? How is that to be ‘as usual’?”

Fazgood growled and hastily adjusted the blazer on the chair. He stripped off his shirt and undershirt, and found clean ones in a drawer. Calzjha’s attention snapped to Warren, who was waving.

“What is it?” Calzjha said testily.

[You are a harlot!]

Calzjha spat with exasperation. “Khuro has a enlightened understanding –-“

“Nevermind. I can use him. I may have him smother that officer.”

“We need to find you an understanding Human woman.”

“I disbelieve that such exists!”

There was a knock. “Please rise!”

Fazgood affected his daffy smile and chimed loudly. “Good morning! We are on our way!”

While still wearing his pants, he tied on his robe and slid open the door.

They showered and relieved themselves (Fazgood smacking his forehead with unusual vehemence) and ate breakfast. The morning’s lectures included a Booloob who explained its community and nature.

“You are answering questions much more accurately today, Khuoro,” said the customarian.

Calzjha smiled with pride at having brought the universe greater relief and alignment.

After the lectures, the fellow aspirants filed out to the porch. The customarian cast an annoyed look at Fazgood rousing from his doze. The Adactoid took Calzjha aside. They watched the Therihe slouch from the room.

Calzjha spent time on the porch speaking with the other aspirants of their plans for when they became citizens. When judicious, he slipped away upstairs.

He slid open the door to their room, where Fazgood dozed.

Fazgood said, eyes seemingly closed. “What is it? You have that look.”

“Kitpoktik told me that scouts had been asking about someone of your description.”

“He ratted me out. Just because I snore in class.”

“No! He bent the truth. He told them you were not in their house, when you were actually in the bathing house at the time.”

Fazgood opened his eyes further. “Why did Kitpoktik do that?”

“As a favor to me. And he hates the scouts.”

“Ah. Did Kikpoktik say what color the scout’s ascot was?”

“I forgot to ask.”

“Nevermind. If it was that scout we beat up coming back with a grudge, he would have been asking about you, me, and the Brumpf there snoring in the laundry hamper.”

A wet whistle came from the open basket.

Fazgood rose from the chair and stretched his back. He switched to Adanikarese. “The scouts are looking for the Great and Monstrous Comet. Someone else will come today or tomorrow. A delivery person or child says they return a thing of value. They go to another guest or a maid, not Kitpoktik. We must away.”

“Are we being watched?”

“I do not know. I doubt that. They would not have asked, It is not the police, and that is good.”

“Should I speak with a customary across town? Or an inn?”

The Earl held the heels of his temples and rubbed. “Let us take a walk. We have to visit some friends.”


*         *         *


His heart pounded as they walked. The Mad Earl muttered prayers and imprecations behind his closed lips. “Zhazh, please keep your elaborations at a minimum. Respected elders of the College, steal all doubts and make my spirit light….”

He had decided they would walk down to the Arterial and join the foot traffic into the city. Walking with Calzjha always eased his mind a little. The young man’s gait was naturally quick, and Fazgood hated walking with sluggards who would make the Earl a slow and easy target. Calzjha was also inclined to occasionally stop and enjoy little details; sunlight flickering through tree branches, vendors singing, the textures of seamless stone walls and wrought iron gates. These breaks afforded Fazgood ample opportunities to survey for pursuers, scouts, police, villains, or demons.

[Hear anything, squire?] asked the Earl.

Warren’s head poked from the basket Calzjha held. [The gulls are much noising, my liege, but nothing odd.]

The Earl inquired a citizen regarding a print shop. After a quick stop which included petty thievery, the three were again on their way.

Calzjha sighed at the bundle his scuttling companion held. “Where are we walking to, exactly?”

“We go to deliver this job of printing.”

Calzjha shrugged. “I am perplexed.”

“Good. Remain so.”

Fazgood made The-Sign-Against-Zhazh yet again and kept walking.

They turned up a side street past an inn. Outside the inn, policemen in maroon jackets had queued the residents in front of the building. The police checked the papers, clothing, and luggage of those visitors. A pair of women trembled, surrounded by maroon jackets, and being lotcasted in public. Fazgood and Calzjha looked to each other with rueful smiles.

They proceeded to the Fourteenth of Hikelmonth Stairs to Harmonium Proper’s Third Tier. Here the pedestrians were more learned and administrative, more colors of uniforms, more conversation, more trees. They passed Lanthornmount Square. Fazgood took himself aside behind a fountain to a public privy, where he relieved himself, and from his bundle put on an ink-stained smock.

He returned to Calzjha and said in Rahsic, “Keep this.”

He handed over the gold-stoppered bottle of relish. Calzjha placed it in the basket.

“Entertain yourself for a few minutes. I have a package to drop off at the Army Headquarters.”

Calzjha guffawed in Adanikarese, “Ah! You will have a look at the soldier!”

Fazgood nodded and tugged his hat at the benediction, tucked the bundle of printing under his arm and trotted down the street to the Square of the Superb.

He tugged down his hat further as he entered the square. The courtyard spread eighty paces across, and at the opposite side stood the Headquarters of the Scout Brigades. He strode past the Palentine Offices, chasing away thoughts of guiltglasses and crimedowsers. Fumbling with the package, he ran up the concrete steps, and through the red brick entrance into the headquarters of the Kingdom’s most esteemed fighting force.

The anteroom was small, cool and dim, and smelled of old and polished wood. Any further entrance barred by a thick wooden wall. A window in the wall allowed a soldier to review all visitors before granting entrance through the adjacent door.

Fazgood said to the soldier, “I need to give this printing to Captain Obdurate Childteacher. He is in the –-“

Fazgood fumbled with the paper at the top of the stack. “I cannot read the address. I am so sorry. I merely need to give this order –- the proper order –- to Captain Childteacher. The columns on the requisition forms we delivered are lacking. These forms are the proper forms.”

The young guard waved a hand. “Leave the forms here. I’ll make sure Captain Childteacher receives them.”

“Ah! He is here! Good! I would do that. I would leave them, but…”

Fazgood pulled a handkerchief from behind his inky smock and within his jacket, and wiped sweat from his brow, making sure the guard saw his ink-stained fingers. “…my master has told me to…apologize for the inconvenience. I am to apologize to the good Captain myself.”

From behind the guard, an older soldier grunted. “Leave a note.”

Fazgood puffed. “Oh no madam! I cannot! We take our responsibilities seriously at my shop! I will stay here all day if I must.”

The older soldier pushed the young soldier aside. Fazgood saw that she turned enough to show off the sergeant’s circle on her sleeve.

The sergeant looked up. “No. No, you will not. I will throw you in the street.”

The Earl opened his eyes wide at the sergeant’s insignia, then fumbled the bundle more.

“Madam! Sergeant! Please. Surely you understand that amends must be given face-to-face.”

At the prompting of responsibilities, the sergeant made a grim, disgusted face.

Fazgood added, “I will be very quick. I do not want to add further inconvenience to you as well.”

The sergeant stepped from the window out of sight. A lock rattled behind the door. Fazgood sighed pitifully, and put his head down to be thrown out.

But the sergeant did not come. Moments passed, and Fazgood knew she had gone to seek the Captain’s permission.

Finally, another rattle, and the door opened.

The sergeant waved a meaty hand. “He will see you. He knows not what delivery you refer to, but perhaps you can sort it out. His office is all the way up the stairs and third door on the right! Be quick!”

Fazgood followed the sergeant up the narrow stone stairways and past uniformed clerks to the office demarcated.

“Captain, here is the printer.”

“Thank you, sergeant,” came a familiar voice.

The office was cramped and hard-pressed against the engraved rafters of the building. A small window provided no relief from the heat. In one corner sat a small desk covered with high, but tidy stacks of paper and a book. A small numbergrinder sat behind the chair, its switches and crank all up and at the ready.

At the desk sat the young officer. He looked at Fazgood and his eyes widened with shock. Fazgood gave a hard, sidelong look at the soldier beside him.

Obdurate took the hint. “Thank you, sergeant. You may go.”

Fazgood stepped into the office and spoke loudly, “Captain, on behalf of the Micklescreek Print House, I offer my deepest and most heartfelt apologies for our error. We value –- nay, sir! –- revere! The trust given us by your office and by the army!”

The captain sat at his backless chair with an expression of absolute dumbfoundment.

“Captain, the guildsman responsible for that mistake is none other than myself. It is to my lasting shame that I did not adhere to the time-honored methods that have made the Micklescreek Print House the producer of inventory forms you trust! This matter drew the attention…”

As he spoke, he glanced to the doorway, eased the aghast soldier slightly to one side of his desk, then began rifling through the stacks of papers. As he rifled, he read the titles: “Dunflats Sawyers: Bill of Lading”. “Helkek Brownfeathers: Terms of Payment”. “Axeflower Mark: Invoice”.

“…of our own beloved guildmaster. He has undertaken a process of training all his print workers, myself especially, to ensure this never happens again. Once again, I state with all of my spirit that Micklescreek Print House honors its decades long work in supplying all of our armed forces and government. Let me take your hand, sir!”

The Earl took Obdurate’s right hand. The soldier tried to snatch it away, but flinched at the strength of the grip. Fazgood inspected the ink in the fingertips, felt a callous on the top of the same finger. As he inspected, he said:

“On behalf of the Micklescreek Print House, its traditions and its personnel, please forgive my mistake and be assured that it will never happen again. We would be honored and relieved if we still retained your trust.”

It is then that Fazgood noticed the book on the desk, and saw its title on its cloth cover: “The Nimblest Man”.

Fazgood asked, “Does the Micklescreek Print House still have your trust?”

Obdurate peeped, “Yes. Indeed. It does.”

“I am so relieved. I will report your continued confidence to my superiors. Please understand that your account will not be charged for the printing of these forms, and for your next printing as well. With your permission, sir, I take my leave.”

“Yes! Permission granted!”

“I will see myself out.”

With that Fazgood snapped up the book on the Captain’s desk. He sprang into the hallway, so as to be in full view of any passersby.

He turned back. “Do remember, sir. We value your trust!”

The Earl clambered down the stairs and out of the building.

Sauntering to his compatriots, Fazgood declared, “He seems legitimate enough. Put this in the basket. We go to our next visit.”

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