“I LOVE ‘THE FLESH SUTRA’!” – Nancy Holder, NYT Best Selling Horror Author
Only 99 cents to your e-reader from Amazon. Erotic body horror under gaslight. Four Stars on Amazon. Dare to try “The Flesh Sutra”.
“I LOVE ‘THE FLESH SUTRA’!” – Nancy Holder, NYT Best Selling Horror Author
Only 99 cents to your e-reader from Amazon. Erotic body horror under gaslight. Four Stars on Amazon. Dare to try “The Flesh Sutra”.
Prior to launching Horror Novel Reviews some four or five years ago I knew a slew of amazing authors. Talents like Richard Matheson, Stephen King, Dan Simmons, Robert McCammon, Joe Lansdale and Dean Koontz are kind of hard to miss. But what of the “little guys” – you know, the authors just beginning to hit […]
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.”
“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.”
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.]
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.
The end of Chapter Two, “The Mother and The Worm”, helped me realize that the best themes and symbols are totally accidental. Right now, I believe the best thing artists can do is present their own secret, lonely religions.
Cliffside-Bastles was the second neighborhood of the city, and was older than the customary’s neighborhood of Paradesend. Despite that age, the only way one could tell the difference was in the girth and height of the trees, which had grown to fill the wide patches of land set aside for their use. However, the sidewalks lay flat around the massive trees; no root pressed the pattern of the bricks to rumple them like an unmade quilt.
Fazgood had been silent since they had read the broadside. Sensing his sullen mood, his associates knew not to ask until the storm had passed.
Calzjha remarked, “How tidy this is! How do they keep the roots from ruining the surfaces?”
Warren looked up from the basket. [Are you certain you want to know? I could inform you, but you’d just lean on the lid again.]
“The Compact keeps all in cooperation,” muttered Fazgood. “Civilization helps nature something something.”
The Earl and Calzjha walked along the brick. Birds chirped in the trees. In the distance, one could hear the echoes of the traffic’s clatter.
Calzjha asked, “Where are we going?”
“I am going,” said the Earl, “to where I am going. Why are you going where I am going?”
“You are my translator. You must accompany me wherever I go.”
The Earl looked around, sighed, then turned back up the sidewalk. “I am not accompanying you anywhere. You are accompanying me.”
“The populace doesn’t know that. We must keep our roles.”
“I set up appointments for tailors to visit. Go back to the customary.”
“I asked the customarians to cancel them. So where are we going?”
“If there is anyone in this city who can leverage a moosecrab, it will be who we are visiting.”
I have to seek out one of Them.
Calzjha looked to the sky. “We must return by the seventeenth hour, otherwise we will miss the lecture on the Exults.”
“Be annoying, and Exults will love you. The best bribe is perfumed dust for their feathers. There is your lecture.”
A small fountain pattered at the head of the street, and next to that a small grocer. They drank their fill, the Earl soaked a handkerchief and mopped the sweat beneath his new hat. Then he purchased some roasted doakbreads from the grocer, and some sticks of sugarcane, all of which had caused them to be thirsty again which made them drink again. Fazgood asked for directions to Scrivener’s Dilligence Street.
Two streets farther down, Scrivener’s Dilligence Street presented as a particularly quiet and shaded lane of cozy homes. The Earl counted off the six houses, found the door of the seventh. With a leftover length of the hard sugarcane, he knocked upon the stout sliding door.
Calzjha whispered, “Who is this?”
Fazgood tilted his hat down to hide his face.
The door slid open. Before them stood a Therihe woman of middle-age. Blond locks framed a square face and square jaw. Bright blue eyes twinkled over a freckled pug nose.
She seemed startled. “Ah! Good afternoon to you! I have no need for vendors today. I am expecting company soon.”
Fazgood found himself bouncing on the balls of his feet in anticipation. “Good afternoon. Is this the house of Yet-More-Muscular Claimant?”
The woman’s hands rose and wrung her apron. “Yes, it is! If my husband asked you to stop by, he is so helpful, but I am so behind in my cleaning, and I do have a visitor coming. Could you come back tomorrow? I will be a little less scattered.”
The Earl replied, “I’m afraid this is an important matter, Goodwife. It has been four years since we set our last appointment. When your husband posted at the Three Kingdoms embassy.”
Fazgood shifted his hat away from his brow.
The woman’s bird-like hands eased slowly to her sides. Her face changed. Her eyes gained a heat and focus.
“Fluxion,” she said. The woman glanced around beyond them at the neighboring homes.
That alone buoyed the Earl’s mood.
“Goodwife, I was so overjoyed to hear of your husband’s posting! The Royal Foreign Affairs Department! You’ve gained your dream of living back in Harmon –-“
She spoke a little louder, “I am sorry, but you have the wrong house.”
She snapped the sliding door shut. But the Earl shoved faster with his sugarcane, and stuck it in the doorjam.
Calzjha looked to Fazgood, stunned: She has his jaw.
Leaning upon the stick, Fazgood declaimed as she tried to press the door shut, “If I could have just a moment of your time, Goodwife, on a matter of importance. We would just be a moment.”
They pushed and struggled.
“Honestly, Goodwife! I cannot! Restate! The importance! Of a brief discussion!”
A hiss came from behind the door. “You would not want the police, would you?”
Calzjha glanced at the nearby doorsteps. No movements stirred at the curtained windows.
“Goodwife! I would sell my wares to whomever you invite! As long as I’ve –- a voice in my throat!”
The last part he ended at a shout, which made the door slide open.
The woman’s crinkled smile had returned. “Enter and be quick.”
The Earl took back his cane and ignored its scuffs. “Fazcelestial Claimant, may I introduce my associate? You may call him ‘Grand Foofaloof.’”
“Please enter my home. Now.”
Once the door shut, so once again did the smile flee. Fazgood offered her his cane and hat, but she glared and led them deeper into the house.
The rooms were simply furnished with well-crafted low tables and cabinets, much like the customary’s furnishings, much like all homes in the kingdom. The difference was that the walls were lined with thick tapestries of gardens and landscapes.
A tea set sat deployed on the common room’s main table.
The Earl sat on a cushion and picked up a delicate cup. “How hospitable! I’m parched!”
She took the cup from his hand. “I am expecting a visitor.”
Calzjha said, “I hope we aren’t inconveniencing you.”
Fazcelestial set the cup back upon the table. “I’ll get you a cup. Would you like a cup also, Squire Grand Assumed Name?”
“No. Thank you, Goodwife.”
“Fazgood, is that weasel still with you?”
Warren peeped out of the basket. [Nothing for me! Nothing at all! Thank you, Goodwife Claimant!] The basket lid closed with a bang.
“How can you get used to that talking in your head?” She knocked a hand against her temple, then stomped into the kitchen.
Calzjha whispered, “You told me your sister lived in the Three Cities.”
“She arranged for her husband’s promotion this Spring.”
The woman stomped back into the room. She slammed a small earthenware mug onto the table before him. It was thick, coarsely-glazed and valueless, as one would give a child.
She passed a hand behind her and sat, arranging the seams of her skirt. “I have received your letters. I do not want to know who you are involved with this time. I truly do not.”
“I left the employ with the royalty of Adanikar. I had time and resources to see the world.”
She reached into a blouse pocket and pulled out a small pillbox. “So you violated a Royal edict of exile to return.”
“Yes. I have a hankering for moosecrab.”
Her jaw clenched. “Of course you do.”
She counted out three pills, poured herself tea in one of the delicate cups and swallowed the pills.
Fazgood held out his coarse cup.
She poured. “Drink. Now.”
She turned to Calzjha. “Squire Co-Defendant, do you know my brother is sentenced to public torment and branding if he was to return to this city?”
Calzjha said, “He…told me as much.”
Fazcelestine set her cup down and breathed into her folded hands. “Then he told you nothing. He joined a rebellion against the Scout Brigades. They tried to start another brigade centered in the Foreign Due. The bunch of them were declared outcasts, then while they were being captured a fire broke out. All of them died save him.”
“But he said he left when twelve years old.”
The Earl nodded. “I was precocious.”
The Earl’s sister gave him a grievous look.
She then said to Calzjha. “Squire Doom-struck, did you know it means branding for anyone who helps him in any way?”
Warren’s head popped from the basket. [Yes! We are sworn to see this through, no matter what his state of mind.]
“That’s what a familiar would say. But you, Doom-struck, you stay no matter how mad he may be.”
The young man stiffened. “We had been through more dire threats. We have infiltrated palaces! I wanted to come. Wherever Fazgood is, chaos seems to follow. In my religion, we seek to learn from disorder.”
She leaned to Calzjha with a look that was almost pity. “Enthus help you, you aren’t lovers, are you?”
Calzjha sagged, trying to conceal disappointment. “No.”
[Thanks to all gods!]
The lid closed with bang.
Oblivious and ruminating, the Earl shook his head. “People believe it is a blessing to be touched by the gods. I tell you it is not. Everybody pesters you for favors. And one cannot get a decent meal like good common folk can.”
The young man looked to the Earl with shock. “You have caused your sister to risk herself. She knows of your presence. She could be branded.”
Fazgood set his cup down and made to look sad. “And that causes me great pain.”
There was a knock at the door.
Fazcelestial drew a deep breath through her nose and closed her eyes. “It is essential that you go into the kitchen.”
Fazgood grinned. “Have you moosecrab there?”
She swelled with rage. “I will help you find your moose-crab. Go to the kitchen. Quietly. Now.”
“My dear Foofaloof, let us retire to the kitchen. My sister has household business to attend.”
There was another, sharper knock.
All rose. The lady of the house shoved the coarse cup into the Earl’s hands and the visitors retired behind the kitchen door.
The three guests peered around the kitchen and found it to be a simple affair, but with utensils and pots to be of the newest design.
Calzjha leaned to the Earl’s ear. “How can you treat your own innocent sister so poorly? To extort your own family!”
Fazgood suppressed a giggle.
Warren eased his head out. [Calzjha, you have no idea! You witnessed a singular event!]
The Earl nodded with glee.
[She is opening the front door!]
Outside, they heard Fazcelestial’s chirping: “Welcome, Ward Leader! Welcome!”
A hearty man’s voice: “Good afternoon, Goodwife. I hope that you and your family are well.”
The echoes of the voices changed as the two citizens of the Kingdom entered the common room and sat for tea. They exchanged pleasant talk of the weather and the beautiful fruits at the market.
The Ward Leader said, “I’ve visited your home before, but I meant to remark on your tapestries. Very…singular decoration. From your husband’s days at the Three Cities?”
“Oh yes. They’re lovely and they do help to keep the cool air in.”
Fazgood whispered, “They help to keep voices in, too.”
[Ha! And incrimination at bay!]
Calzjha gave the amused two a look of puzzlement.
The Ward Leader said, “You had told me of an issue you wished to discuss with me outside of the official meetings. How may I help you?”
There was a profoundly sad sound, like a songbird pining unto death. They realized it was Fazcelestial sighing.
The Leader, concerned: “Great maids, madam! What grieves you so?”
“It is my poor son Fazprime! The placement exams are coming in ten days. He desperately wants to get into administration like his father, but his school marks haven’t been…. He’s always been a good boy. A hardworking boy.”
“I would not presume, Goodwife, but are you about to ask about his placement tests?”
“Ah, Ward Leader! Am I so easy to read?”
“You are without any pretense, Goodwife. It is my job to know people, and to me you are as guileless as a newborn.”
“Ah! I had prepared such an entreaty. But I will leave arguing to my betters. I will just ask: could you help my poor Fazprime to be admitted to civil service?”
“I would consider it, but such intervention is rare and unusual. Questions would be asked, and Fazprime…is not up to the demands of the duty. This is what the test scores say. You may find him a career with…perhaps the Scout Brigades.”
Honest annoyance slipped through her voice. “There is no enemy to pilfer anymore! The Scouts have become layabouts and savages.”
The politican struggled to convince. “There may come a time when the Brigades will come again to the fore. He is well-suited.”
“But it is so well-known that people do change with responsibility and age.”
He consoled. “My son knows Fazprime and says he is the best sort. But the tests are strict for a reason. Your husband can tell you better than I about that.”
“Are you decided then, Ward Leader?”
“I am, Goodwife.”
“I regret disappointing you, but it is the way of my responsibility that I cannot satisfy all.”
Her voice brightened. “Ah. Do not feel sad for me. But let me tell you something amusing. Such an odd thing had happened the other day, I truly must tell you.”
“Perhaps you could tell me another time.”
“Sir, I had taken an evening’s walk and I had become confused. Silly old me! My husband says my sense of direction is like a butterfly’s. I meant to enter back through my home through the backdoor, but discovered that I had walked down the wrong street and behind the wrong house! What a fool I felt!”
“Ah. How awkward for you.”
“Yes! I remember that the house I almost entered was two streets away and three houses farther down and on the opposite side. I have been preoccupied, but still, I should wear a bell or something so I can be found!”
“Goodwife! A bell? Ha! That would be unnecessary! But…which house did you say you had wandered to?”
“Two streets away, three houses farther down, and on the opposite side as mine.”
“That would be…. Why, Goodwife! That would be my house! We would have enjoyed your company!”
“I felt uncomfortable as it was. Surely you understand. There I trembled in the dark and everyone indoors because it was raining. But as I departed, I suppose it was your back door, I had almost stumbled over a canvas sack. It tinkled a bit. I looked inside, and it was a collection of smashed glass.”
There was silence.
In the kitchen, the three looked to each other to see if any had deduced the significance. All shrugged, then eagerly pressed their ears to hear more.
“Good sir, I always find use for discarded items. It is doing our best for our kingdom!”
More silence, then: “So you took the sack…home?”
“I thought I had. I remember opening the sack and seeing all this beautiful green glass that I knew I could find a use for. But it all had such an odd smell to it. And there was so much of it. I resolved to wash the glass later, and so I set the sack aside.”
Fazgood suppressed an amused groan. Warren closed his eyes and shook his head with pity. Calzjha pouted, still puzzled.
The Leader’s voice was measured and careful. “Where did you put that sack?”
“Do you see? There I am again: lost! I set the sack aside, and I can’t remember where I had set it!”
“Silly me! I’ve looked everywhere.”
Silence again. In the kitchen, none dared breathe.
The Goodwife spoke, “Why sir! Are you well? Have some more tea!”
“I…I could help you look.”
“Oh, the bag’s safe somewhere! I know it is! It’s that with worrying about Fazprime’s acceptances, my mind is a waterspout! Hoosh! All flying everywhere.”
“Your worries are causing you to forget?”
“Indeed sir. I do wish you could help me sort my mind! Otherwise I would never remember about the sack, and I’d have to start asking the neighbors.”
The Ward Leader’s voice had a high, tense quality now: “That sack…contained bottles from many, many years of entertaining guests.”
“I wouldn’t know what they contained, sir. Or how recently the labels on the bottles had been printed. Are you certain you will not have more tea?”
Calzjha looked at his compatriots, not certain whether to take umbrage at their mirth.
Fazgood leaned to him. “Green bottles are reserved for the hardest liquors.”
Calzjha whispered, “But alcohol is popular in the kingdom.”
“A rumor that he drinks unseemly amounts would cast doubt upon him.”
[That sack could ruin him, you fool!]
The young man was aghast.
The three heard the Ward Leader stutter his need to leave, which the Goodwife accepted graciously. He tersely bid good-day, and she returned it with an abundant cheeriness.
Footsteps. The door slid open. Fazcelestial stood in the doorway, her eyes like those of a rabbit-sated raptor’s.
The Earl allowed an appreciative nod. “That was well played.”
She accepted the compliment coolly.
Calzjha stammered, “Wasn’t what you did illegal?”
Fazcelestial sorted her cuffs. “I have no idea what you are talking about.”
The Earl gave a vexed glance. “I have told you before about asking useless questions.”
[Please do not annoy her.]
The woman escorted them back into the common room. The cups and cushions evidenced the unseen events.
She said, “While I was speaking with the Ward Leader, I had a thought regarding your situation. You want your moosecrab? Try the zoo.”
Fazgood rapped his knuckles against his temples. “Ah! The zoo!”
His sister smiled with satisfaction.
The Earl scratched his head. “I had been considering crabs already dead and cooked. But a zoo crab would still need cooking. Sister?”
Fazcelestial spat air and looked upon him with disdain.
“I apologize, sister. I remember now: your husband does the cooking.”
“He cooks barely to my standards, and certainly not to your tastes, Earl Pet’s-Palate.”
Fazgood tapped his associate’s shoulder. “And she thought of my crab while entertaining a guest! Did I not tell you she was remarkable?”
Calzjha regained his composure. “You did…tell me. Indeed.”
“Normally the Foofaloof is a better liar. Your performance left him speechless.”
“Such a trait is worth learning,” she replied.
“Another thing about families, Foofaloof: never overstay your welcome. Dear sister.”
“I have so many questions: how is your family?”
“You heard of Fazprime’s predicament. He does well otherwise.”
“Yet-More is advancing up the ranks of governance.”
“Yes. However, Squire Inky-Fingers needs to show more initiative, and do less scribbling.”
“The two of you will make a wise Prime Minister one day. Have you heard from brother Fazclever?”
“I send him money. He sends me his artwork otherwise.”
To Calzjha: “Being an artist does not pay much, but our brother’s talent is unique. What of our brother Fazduty?”
“Promoted to Master of Sergeants in the Prince’s Border Guard. He receives your letters. He shreds them in his teeth.”
“It is his own fault that he is honest.”
“You tell him that.”
The Earl dropped his voice to a whisper. “What of sister Fazarboreal?”
“She and mother have fled to points unknown.”
“Then we shall extend pity to ‘points unknown’.”
He leaned closer. “Have you been to see our old house? The Faz lodge in Creedlesbrook?”
“They tore it down and built a grander one. Do you know how many thousands have lived there since we left? Where do you get your sentimentality?”
Fazgood shrugged, not a copy of the Harmoniad Shrug, at a loss for a quip.
He turned to Calzjha. “Foofaloof, please have a look outside?”
Calzjha noted the stillness between the siblings and bade the goodwife a pleasant stay. She shut the door.
“Where did you pick up this poor patsy?”
“I happened upon him in Adanikar.”
“He is in love with you.”
“He’s still young enough to think all of this is exciting.”
“Yet you do not ditch him.”
Fazgood’s smile had gone. He looked out the window at the street.
Her expression of pity returned. “Shadows fall quickest near thieves.”
“I think the street is clear,” he said.
She reached for the door. “If they come asking, I will tell them you were here.”
“I know. I wouldn’t want you to gamble all of this.”
“I’ve said it before many times, I’ll say it again: Stay away, Fazgood. Never come back.”
“I am sorry, sister, but we are stuck with each other.”
“You may…continue sending your letters. My husband gains such enjoyment from them.”
“Extend my regards to your family at some time when it is safe to do so.”
Fazcelestial opened the door and the sunlight streamed in. Her light, dizzy smile returned. “Good day to you, vendor!”
The Earl’s own affable smile returned. “I thank you for your time, Goodwife. I hope the remainder of your day is pleasant.”
He stepped onto the stoop and joined Calzjha. They walked up the street and heard the door close behind them.
Calzjha whispered in Adanikarese, “And that is all? You had not seen her in years.”
“Each family is a nation. Each have its own ways.”
Calzjha walked along, his graceful stride having an unusual weight. “Warren —Brumpf?”
The weasel popped his head from the basket. [Yes?]
Calzjha’s expression froze at the mistake, then resumed his whisper, “In the kitchen, you mentioned ‘a singular event.’ What event?”
[Few have ever gotten leverage on a member of our liege’s family and kept their bones or their fortune intact. Fazcelestial herself blackmailed our liege during his stay at the Three Cities.]
The young man shook his head in dismay.
Fazgood nudged his young friend and asked in Rahsic, “Do you know what you need, good Foofaloof?”
Calzjha noted the Earl’s sudden heartiness and replied. “Moosecrab?”
“Indeed! We are half-way to our goal. And the zoo will keep our crabs safe. Now: to a cook.”
Obdurate applied the wax stamp to the top of the bill of lading and rolled his thumb over it. The bill of lading was due to Grand Slope’s North Brook Canal, Third Segment Of ‘Champion of The Post Street’, Building Two’s Office. He pinched his inkreed and wrote the address of that building from memory “1295-02-47-03-02”.
He set down the inkreed on the still tidy desk and placed the bill on the stack of contracts due to go out with the evening mail. He rubbed his temples with the heels of his hands, looked up at the engraved blessings on the wooden rafters.
“Why couldn’t I have stayed home sick during the Disposition Exams?”
Obdurate had been sick with a head cold on that morning.
His uncles had been drilling him, their prodigy, for weeks on math formulae. Young Obdurate had felt a little run down from the night before, and from the nights before that. But on the morning of the exams, he had awakened with a fiery throat and a nose that ran like an artesian spring.
Obviously, the immutable world had been trying to tell young Obdurate Childteacher not to go to the testing, but he had to go to make his uncles proud. He dragged himself into the lecture hall on the campus where his uncles taught, gagging and coughing through a handkerchief, and presented the Royal College at Alpia with the sole perfect mathematics disposition oral exam ever delivered at that tiny but respected locale.
The choice of the test led to the choice to leave his uncles’ home in the faculty quarters at the College, which led to a choice to become a public administrator (which he had the added burden of guilt; youths wrung their brains and hearts dry to be considered for public administration, and Obdurate could choose it) which led to the Army, and the man who had to have the very best on his staff.
General Greatsergeant was a leather goad of a man, a caramel Rahsic with the jutting forehead and chin of his famous grandfather who forever thrashed the demon in Lanthornmount Square. His warmest smile came as a command to be hearty if you knew what was good for you.
Before going overseas with the Army of Invitation, Greatsergeant would receive Obdurate’s careful, excited descriptions of streamlining transportation and distribution methods with nods approximating contemplation. Then he would say, “You can make numbers jump, boy. Supplies run so smooth I don’t even know they’re there. But as a person, you’re a salted fish.”
Then he would smile.
One day seven months ago, the General had received the order from the King himself: take the Army to the Ijkalla Islands and offer the Compact to all who inhabit them.
The General clapped his hand hard on Obdurate’s shoulder. “I have my wife invite guildsmen and their wives over for contemplations every day. Come tomorrow and get to know these people. I need you to keep an eye on things while I am gone.”
Obdurate understood more and more every day what exactly to keep an eye on. Then respiration showed the General’s secret.
If I could find a way to discern that monster, and show the General as he truly is…
Numeromancy was potentially dangerous in the wrong hands, so he was told. He risked demotion for experimenting outside his specialization no matter what the physical risk. At first, he did it because of boredom. Then it had been titillating to know the location of public figures at a given time, judges and police officials. He fantasized about running and telling the official in secret, risking telling them the secret, the telling of which would destroy the Kingdom. Now, it had become a compulsion and he tracked the most fanciful subjects to take his mind from his tedium and anxieties. He wondered if this brinkmanship was of the like that Respiration indulged, hoping to be caught to bring the charade to an end.
Concepts are always multiplied by concretes, details dividing the grand.
That principle and its definitions of terms had cost Obdurate more lunches with more civil planners than he could bear contemplating. Through mouthfuls of pickled vegetables, Obdurate learned how the traffic police and custom guards counted the numbers of carts and pedestrians who traveled the streets, and how this data translated into the creation of new residences and supporting utilities.
The working methods of trafficants really was interesting, even if the means of learning put Obdurate off his appetite.
Obdurate set aside the precious parchment and placed it in its cabinet. To limber up his counting-brain, Obdurate applied The Print Guild Exacting Theorum to “That Nimblest Man” (date of printing multiplied by number of pages, then multiplied by the enumeration of the guild’s printing press, then divided by number of lines per page multiplied by its font’s spacial factor). Uncle Lancing had taught Obdurate that theorem when at the age of five, Obdurate presented a hand-printed newspaper of household events during a passing interest in publishing.
He turned to the book’s frontispiece and checked the printer’s note at the first page of the book’s benediction. The note matched his sum: 92,413 words.
Flipping through pages, he hunted out the Mad Earl’s birth date, noting the time of birth vague. He noted the date Fazgood helped Blounbirq slay the Abomination, and the name “Weiquant”, the Earldom which the new Emperor Blounbirq bestowed on Fazgood.
His fingers thumped against the table in the rhythm, carrying his tens to his left thumb, the hundreds to the right thumb and so on.
Obdurate factored the date of the Earl’s marriage, and his wife’s demise. He factored the dates Fazgood fled his earldom in the middle of the night, of his arrival at the College of Incorrigibles, and at The Kingdom of The Three Cities to act as their Spymaster. There the story ended with the Mad Earl’s disappearance at the end of their civil strife.
“Oh yes!” Obdurate scratched his nose. “The observer influence.”
Obdurate divided by his personal number of “942137”.
Obdurate wiped the ink from his fingertip and beheld the total: “8513581302”.
He chuckled, then shook his head and groaned. He had a result, but no means of interpreting it! He would have to keep lunching to somehow finesse an interpretation of the sum. Another three weeks of pickle balls!
Something struck him as strange, though.
If looked at as an address, the “8513” was Harmonium’s own identifier. The eight? If the equation was indeed reductive, then the eight would be the eighth neighborhood, Paradesend. The five would be a street number…”Gratitude to the Citizens of King Lambent’s Reign Street”? Thirteen would be building identifier for…they were mainly private residences in Paradesend, or perhaps it was a grocer or a customary. Could the two be a room number?
The Mad Earl in Harmonium? Ridiculous!
Plug-hat toughs had scurried out of the Well-and-Ivy Scout headquarters on sudden errands. In an office stinking of incence and fear sweat, the Inspector slurped his tea.
More bungles to fix, he thought. Never an end to it.
Inspector Mehzadapt eased his breath and smoothed his ascot. The color seemed to ripple between his creased, pink fingers: yellow-blue-green-black-magenta, the five colors representing the Brigades Magnate. His plug hat sat on the table before him and to his right at the proper forty-five degree angle. Beside him, the adjutant’s hat rest at a somewhat sharper angle from the center of his body, thirty-five degrees perhaps. Mehzadapt adjusted his own hat and flicked at imaginary dust, until the adjutant reflexively slid his own hat to his proper angle and twitched his hands over his own rumpled five-colors.
Mehzadapt didn’t bother looking at the young man. “The police want to curtail the brigades. The guilds say we demand too much. Our lower ranks moan about wanting bonuses and extra privileges! Then they bungle a simple customs watch.”
He set the cup down and listened as the adjutant poured another cup.
“It’s a simple mistake,” the young man replied. “Badly timed, but simple.”
“How many other mistakes here have passed unnoticed? Sloppy work. What reflects upon one of us,” stated the Inspector with slow, hard conviction. “Reflects upon all.”
The adjutant shrank. A towering gray Adactoidoid deputy entered, and the young man shrank further from its scarred visage.
The deputy whispered into the Inspector’s ear, “They found where your gambler’s hid.”
“Have my Deputy Cornpudding see me, Varalam” he replied.
The Inspector grinned, making sure the smile did not reach his eyes. He watched the adjutant relax, eager to learn the cause of relief.
Mehzadapt waved a hand at the paltry news: “They have found that gambler.”
Another nervous twitch of the adjutant’s mouth. “Is this the one who has such accusations of you?”
“That gaudy liar. She wanted to leverage me and it backfired. I will gladly face her at my appraisal.”
“Yes, she’s a commotion: bangles, tinkly crystals, big clanking enamel buttons from who-knows-where overseas.”
The door slid open and a deputy admitted the scarred old woman who led as captain of the Well-and-Ivy.
“Evidence has been secured,” she reported. “One of the scouts picked these up. He took advantage of the disorder and behaved as a scout should. He gathered information.”
“I expect no less. What did he find?”
“A carpenter had said the widow had been eating biscuits. Our scout searched quickly and found this.”
The Inspector picked at the handkerchief. Within its folds lay three tiny shards of blue porcelain, each no larger than an Exult fingernail.
She added, “He got some of these before the police started mucking about.”
Mehzadapt flicked the cloth back over the shards. “That blue glaze is a jar of that stomach medicine they sell at the quarantine ports. This is all of the evidence located?”
“Yes, Inspector,” replied the Captain. “My scout left none behind.”
“We shall send some to the police, in due course.”
“Ah. Yes, Inspector. Though it would be best to insure if we contacted…”
The Inspector glanced again. The Captain’s sentence trailed off.
The Captain brought another cloth from a pocket of her tunic.
Two severed fingers left small stains of red on the cloth. One finger was small, thin and smooth. Knuckle hair bristled from the other.
The Inspector settled back with a snort. “Too rote.”
“My scouts did this penance. The senior of them did us a favor by finding those blue bits.”
Mehzadapt smoothed his ascot. “Tradition holds that the scouts should offer those as their penance. I want them both to reflect on what they have done, and come up with a more imaginative and sincere offer of remorse.”
“It would have been useful,” the Captain’s jaw clenched, “to know of your preference prior to their making this offering.”
Replied the Inspector, “It is in this way that I know the sincerity of those who work for the Magnate of the Scout Brigades.”
The Captain folded the cloth back up with a slight tremble to her fingers, and removed herself from the room without a word. The deputy shut the door.
The adjutant forced a smile. “Inspector, were those both pinkies, do you think?”
“Indeed the one on the left, the thin and young one, was a pinkie. The hairy one was a ring finger. That hairy old rascal had muddied up something before. What had I been telling you?”
“Oh! You…ah…you were describing the investigation.”
Settling back, Mehzadapt picked up his cup. “The Customs Police have accounted for all of the passengers on the barge. Being good citizens, the passengers had reported to the Police once the ruckus settled. That leaves two beings missing. The Police stated their Caster threw ‘The Blazing Comet.’”
He paused, waiting for a response.
The adjutant said, “I have not heard of a ‘Blazing Comet.’”
“Oh, they’re rare. It signifies some sort of major troublemaker. My Comet hadn’t applied through Well-and-Ivy for safe passage and inspection, or else we would have discerned them ourselves when they applied.”
“The luggage contained calling cards and clothing labels for the Millproctor Family, from Five-Near Gleaning. The police are searching the manifests of outgoing ships as we speak.”
“I wonder if the Millproctor women were murdered.”
Mehzadapt flipped his hand. “I would have killed them. It would be superb if the Brigades could capture my Comet. If we could dispose of him, that would exemplary.”
The Adjutant’s back stiffened. “You say ‘dispose’. That is for the courts to dispose.”
“If it happens in process, it happens.”
Deputy Varalam slid open the door. “Senior Caster Reedtickle Major is here. And Deputy Cornpudding.”
The Caster entered, and the deputy shut the door behind. Reedtickle was a Booloob, one of the race of intelligent gas bubbles. Reedtickle had slipped into a fashionable puppet body about one meter in height. The puppet body wore a well-tailored blue suit with a five-colored ascot and black plug hat properly sized for its scale. Above the ascot and beneath the hat, Reedtickle’s translucent gray bulb shimmered and rippled. Human-sized, fragile hands carried a tiny caster’s case.
The puppet body glided with tiny, floating steps to a place at the table. The hands set the case down and removed the plug hat. A whiff of the swampwater from the Booloob’s breakfast wafted across the table.
Mehzadapt allowed the smile to reach his eyes. “Reedtickle! Please! Do rest!”
Behind the Booloob stepped a stocky pink-skinned man in deputy’s attire, his skin dry and chalky, his hair brittle. Mehzadapt waved him over.
He whispered to the deputy, “Cornpudding, find the gambler. See to her.”
A deep rumble came from Cornpudding’s stomach. The man blanched and backed from the room quickly.
Reedtickle settled upon his cushion. The ripples above the necktie tightened into vibrations.
He warbled, “Good afternoon, boys! I heard we have some naughty louts to track down!”
Mehzadapt informed the Caster of the situation.
Reedtickle’s tone deepened. “A Monstrous Comet! You could go decades and not cast one of those! Sorry for my levity.”
The Inspector smiled. “No harm done. How are your progeny?”
“My foam does well, thank you Inspector.”
“Splendid! Let us begin. I told you what I learned from the police. They lack knowledge of my Comet’s destinations.”
The adjutant said, “Then I do not understand. I believed casting could measure how much trouble one will cause.”
“Some signs,” explained Reedtickle, “describe a being’s future intention and other signs describe that being’s past behavior. In particular, the ‘Comet’ sign describes what the person has done throughout his history. That is what we call this ‘essence.’”
“Ah! When he donned a disguise –-“
The Inspector clenched his smile at the interruption. “My Comet and whoever with him had to don the clothing of innocent people to pass detection.”
“When your Comet donned the Millproctor’s clothes,” Reedtickle settled onto his teacup to sip, “he was trying to obscure his essence from the spirits. Your Comet probably kept one of their sympathy dolls close in hopes her nature would obscure further. Such precautions are used in foreign lands.”
“But why did they not work for my Comet?”
A shrug of puppet shoulders. “Something goaded his essence to the fore. Being nauseous would not have been enough. Was there any other disturbance?”
The Inspector narrowed his eyes. “In the same pod of travelers, there was a philosopher.”
A gasp from the adjutant.
The Inspector sneered. “The philosopher had a false magic charm which he thought would protect him.”
Reedtickle wobbled with amusement. “A philosopher. Why would one bother with philosophy? Such a hazard would have easily detected.”
The Inspector leaned back. “If the dress was to obscure, then I suppose this: my Comet traveled with a decoy in case his first obscurities failed.”
“But something unexpected made his essence obvious.”
“So,” Mehzadapt ran his finger along the edge of his cup, “my Comet is thorough, experienced and bold at infiltration. He had bad luck and we were fortunate that some unknown cause interfered.”
“The police,” the young man said, “have come to the same conclusion, Inspector.”
The Inspector slid the handkerchief to the caster. “Here is our advantage. This was part of a jar in my Comet’s possession.”
Reedtickle turned over his left hand to reveal a thick black lacing across the palm. He untied it.
“’The Blazing Comet’ signifies someone who has influenced thousands of lives. A military leader. A civil magnate. A nobility appointed by divine right.”
“When you say ‘influenced’…”
“The Comet sweeps away all expectations and comforts.”
Both men considered this with alarm.
The adjutant startled. “Like a terrible fire or a flood. An invader!”
“Worse. You can rebuild after floods and invasions. The Comet’s nature sweeps away even the will to cooperate.”
The Inspector glared. “Adjutant! A demon who needs biscuits for an upset stomach?”
“That is sensible, Inspector. But consider that he could travel through our kingdom without notice or causing mischief.”
Reedtickle unlaced his right palm and pulled back its cloth flap. It revealed a translucent gray bulge, the same form as that which protruded from the caster’s neck.
The Caster touched the grayness of his palm to the shards delicately, in anticipation of doing the casting.
The Inspector sipped his tea. “Your job is done here, Adjutant.”
The adjutant’s mouth twitched almost into a frown. However, he did rise, bid farewell, and depart without protest.
After the door slid shut, the Caster opened his bag and pulled a tiny black cloth. The hands unfolded it, and smoothed out its red triangle. Out came the caster sticks, which were rubbed slowly between the large hands.
The Booloob said, “You’ve done enough of these to know when to ask.” His head-bubble vibrated, and the Caster’s keening made Mehzadapt’s eardrums flutter.
When the tone of the spell was appropriately rich, the Inspector asked, “Who is the one who owned these?”
The tiny red sticks scattered. Three joined at one end in the form of a triangle. A fourth joined at the apex and lay like a Comet handle.
The Caster stopped keening and leaned close to the sticks. “Ah! Here is our stranger!”
“So it is confirmed.”
“The Blazing Comet.”
The Caster gathered the sticks and rubbed them between his palms, keening.
“What intends my Comet in Harmonium?”
The casting rattled upon the table.
“’The Road.’ It could be the Comet is traveling elsewhere.”
“Reedtickle, there are many easier ways into the Kingdom. I believe my Comet wants to be here in Harmonium. Where did my Comet come from?”
“’Fleeing The Battle.’”
“Could that mean the strife in Czylachu?”
“It need not be an actual war. Wait. You had said ‘my Comet.’ You should have said ‘the Comet’.”
“Had I? Are you certain?”
“I am certain.”
The Inspector waved. “A turn of phrase. Cast again.”
“But with a strange result, Inspector. The spirits are sticklers for phrasing. The spirits may be saying that you, Inspector, know the Comet. Inspector, in your history you may have had some severe dealing from which our Comet which is fleeing.”
“That is ridiculous! Cast again!”
They cast again with the same phrasing. Sticks lined to form the road outside the triangle: “Fleeing The Battle”.
“Ha! Me! Dealing with such a dire creature! Are you certain?”
“Do not force me to boast, Inspector.”
Mehzadapt leaned his chin on his hands and contemplated the sticks. “I have caused many exiles. Others have been executed due to my diligence. Perhaps it could be a relative of one such rascal.”
“But who would flee by traveling back into the lair of the one who caused…”
The Inspector reddened. “He doesn’t mean to flee! Me! He means to attack me!”
There was much further casting.
Finally, Reedtickle held up his laced left hand. “This is enough. My mind muddies.”
The Booloob laced his palm. The Inspector waited expectantly.
Reedtickled declared, “Your Comet had fled some discord that you had caused. The Comet is a man skilled at his trade.
“However,” the Booloob held up a finger, “he owes you the debt of a life. You spared or saved his life.
“Most importantly, his intention is not clear.”
Mehzadapt slumped. “I have never spent a day outside of Harmonium. He has intentions regarding me, or will soon.”
“A murderous intention would have been clear at the Elder Daughter’s Gate. That Caster would have seen not ‘The Comet’, but something that showed that dire and immediate concern. A casting called ‘The Blade’, or another called ‘The Inferno’ are common when murder is intended. The Comet may wish you thanks for his life.”
The Inspector puffed his cheeks and squirmed a little in his wool blazer.
“A debt of a life?” he wondered. “But I spared few in my time. I…”
In his memory he saw a face, long abandoned and forgotten, lit red with the fire of a burning warehouse.
The one person who knows of my allegiance with the rebel Scouts. He could ruin me just when I am about to become Magnate of the Scout Brigades. Fazgood was always such a pest.
“I have someone you need cast for. But I also request a favor.”
* * *
The Sixteenth-Hour Daily Rain had passed upriver by the time Fazgood stepped off the ferry back in Harmonium. He carried a woven and lacquered package the width of his forearm. Calzjha eased through the crowd of businessmen headed home.
Warren poked his head from Calzjha’s basket. [My liege? I prevailed! He stayed in men’s clothes as I had demanded!]
“Tell me that our accommodations have been arranged.”
Calzjha bowed. “The place is called The Customary of Three Shady Moaltrees. It is known for its cooking of seafood.”
“It is there that I shall eat moosecrab until I am myself become a moosecrab. Then we shall flee before we’re found.”
The rickshaw’s wheels clacked into the grooves of the Lambent Concourse, a thoroughfare Fazgood realized was only twenty paces wide. They watched the crowds along the sidewalks until they passed under the Undoubtable Bastlement. They looked up at the gap where the spiked metal drawgates hung waiting, and at the massive rolling parapets.
The rickshaw’s wheels clacked into the grooves of the Lambent Concourse, a thoroughfare Fazgood realized was only twenty paces wide. They watched the crowds along the sidewalks until they passed under the Undoubtable Bastlement. They looked up at the gap where the spiked metal drawgates hung waiting, and at the massive rolling parapets.
Suddenly, the rickshaw stopped. Outside, all the pedestrians had stopped and looked behind.
Calzjha looked around. “What –?”
With a growl, Fazgood sprang from the seat and stepped outside. Calzjha scrambled for the basket and followed.
The whole of the traffic on the Lambent Concourse had ceased moving. Wagons and rickshaws discharged their passengers onto the sidewalks, to join the fellow citizens who had already begun intoning. As one, the city turned to face the Citadel. They sang.
A song without words, purely a melody, yet strangely off-key. The sounds resonated within the body and were strongly affecting. Men puffed and wrenched it from their chests. Old women quaked to their fibers singing it. Exult chicks peeped, stomachs crushing to their chests. All were swept with fervor and passion to make the thunderous deluge of sounds.
Calzjha and Warren stared dumbstruck.
“Ah,” remarked the Earl. “They do that here. Forgot about the anthem. Four times daily.”
After the tone echoed away, all turned again to their business. Their rickshaw driver bid them to return to their seats.
Calzjha remarked, “I understand a little about what you said.”
“I tried to speak with a few of the people. I wanted to say hello, exchange some pleasant talk. They were all very…what would be the word? They smiled, but were busy about their business.”
“That word would be…. I know what you mean. ‘Thank you, I am sorry’ while they’re stepping on your toes and pushing you along.”
“That is it.”
“That is Harmonium.”
“You aren’t like that. You said this is your home.”
Fazgood suppressed a belch. “I’ve gotten away and gotten a look around. But this is still my home.”
Calzjha spoke in Adanikarese, “They exiled you.”
Fazgood leaned his head against the wicker of the rickshaw. “My side lost. My family found that inconvenient. The government more so. Doesn’t mean it’s not my home.”
The rickshaw drew to a large house of brick painted bright blue-green. They got out and paid the driver. Fazgood kept the Adanikarese package under his arm. Beyond the rippled tile roofs of the neighborhood, following along the cupric twinkling of the Triumph, dusk shone off the tilted bowl of the Harmonious Citadel.
The customary stood two stories tall. Its veranda that wrapped around its front and sides on both floors.
A small Therihe woman stepped from the porch.
The Mad Earl grinned. “My name is Mehzpersist. Your home is very appealing. Is this freshly painted?”
After much flattery and flirting, Fazgood asked that a messenger run to the tailors and vendors he had conferred with that afternoon, and to give them his new address. He also made the appointment for Calzjha’s fitting for new clothes, which made Calzjha very happy.
“Citizen Customarian, I present the Great Foofaloof of the Ijkalla Archipelago. He is here to visit and get to know the peoples of the Kingdom.”
“We have only a two-room suite available. It is on the top floor in the back.”
“It is perfect, citizen! The Foofaloof dislikes noise and travels with few items of luggage.”
Calzjha muttered in Adanikarese, “’Foofaloof’? Is that some curse in Birqmuirish?”
[What a silly sound! Ha!]
Fazgood eased the bag from Calzjha’s hands. “In the Foofaloof’s bag is a symbol of his office, the Guardian Brumpf.”
The woman peered into the bag and her eyes widened. “What is this? Ah. It is most unusual.”
“The Brumpf is well-behaved, clean and very intelligent.”
“Pets must be closely minded. If it soils, it will be kept in a pen. Please follow me.”
She turned and directed the porters upstairs.
[My liege, need our names be so…flatulent?]
Fazgood hissed for silence. He touched the customary’s shoulder.
Now! The moment for which he had endured months, sailed for weeks, stolen and destroyed the fates of others, risked his life and his worthies lives.
He noted Calzjha’s breath had stopped. He sensed Warren’s anxious attention.
“Citizen Customary, have you moosecrab?”
She turned back. “I do not understand, sir.”
“Moosecrab! I have been craving it keenly for a thousand miles.”
“It is the fallow year for moosecrab.”
“Eh? What do you say?”
“It is the moosecrab’s year to be fallow.”
“’Fallow?’ I am sorry, I don’t know…”
“We do not harvest moosecrab this year, to allow its numbers to be replenished.”
Fazgood almost dropped the package. Calzjha seized his elbow and steadied him.
The Earl blinked. “None being cooked anywhere?”
“No kitchen serves it.”
“May citizens purchase a moosecrab?”
“No, on pain of jail.”
He slumped further. His eyes cast about feverishly. “Any tidal basins about?”
Her smile froze. “What?”
He caught himself and took a shuddering breath. “I jest! Ha! Jest!”
Fazgood turned to Calzjha and spoke in Adanikarese. “Again the gods flick urine in my face! Ha!”
The customarian and Calzjha both smiled politely.
Fazgood spoke in Rahsic. “Yes. A thousand miles travel. For just a soft, crispy claw in sour cream. Or a tender, juicy antler. Thank you.”
Calzjha affected a thick Adanikarese accent. “My servant is tired. A long day for us.”
The customarian gave a well-practiced frown. “Travel is so hard. In the sixth hour, Foofaloof, you are required to join class to become better acquainted with our ways.”
Fazgood suppressed a further curse. “Sixth hour? At dawn?”
They followed the porters upstairs to their room.
Calzjha slid the door shut. “Be calm.”
“There is no moosecrab.”
“There must be another food that will do as well.”
Fazgood murmured in Adanikarese, “The gods have little jests with me. I think only of tasty moosecrab since Adanikar…”
Calzjha sighed. “I shall dance ‘The Monkey And The Grapes.’ Perhaps that will make the spirits pity your situation.”
“God-poxied, urine-flicking, dance-monkeying –”
“Go to sleep, Faz. We will find moosecrab.”
“Yes. Sleep. So I dream of dancing moosecrab. Then I will go mad. Sweet final madness. Yes.”
Calzjha walked into the bedroom. Fazgood took off his blazer, shirt and pants, and flung the shirt in the hamper.
Warren crawled from the bag and quietly checked around the baseboards for peepholes.
The Mad Earl found the corner of the room that could not be seen from the suite’s entrance. He moved a small table and lamp from the corner to one side and put a sitting cushion in their place. He settled a pillow under his lower back, knotted two clean handkerchiefs together, then knotted them around his throat to keep his jaw from dropping open and himself from snoring. He kept the river rocks, the skullwarmer, and his cane hidden but within reach. He reached and turned the lamp key until the light dimmed to a faint orange glow.
He wondered as he fell asleep, What was that nonsense the fellow at the dock babbled before it all went sour?
Warren settled in the shadows across the room and listened to the house ease into rest, leaving the rustlings of servants preparing for the next morning, and the slow breath of Calzjha deep in ritual.
* * *
Harmonium’s activity ebbed in the faint hours every evening, but it never did go completely to sleep. The night air of the plazas back within the Secure took on a dim green illumination, as if false dawn cast through an immense green cloth. If one listened closely and the sea breeze ebbed, one could hear the crystalline, sweet tones of the glass armonica chorus which invoked this lighting.
At the mid-point of the Secure’s length, the Greatsergeant Bastion stood dark and quiet. The seabreeze pushed against the thick, simple curtains that Respiration had hung. The curtains made the bedroom stiflingly humid, but made it perfectly dark. It is this way that she could deceive the housestaff and retreat nightly to the secret anteroom.
In the deep, second hour of the morning, candles burned in the candle-holders. Obdurate and she lay naked on blankets Obdurate had purchased over the many months, her tiny trailing braids curling about their necks.
The stonewalls of the anteroom swam with color.
Stacked in makeshift but secure reliquaries, a dozen candles flickered in sublime lanterns. The heat of some tiny flames spun delicate turbines from far Adanikar, which held shades of stained glass and the glistening carapaces of insects. One candle reflected from a platter whose surface somehow flickered from orange to purple to amber.
Obdurate and Respiration turned away from one corner. There rest a lacquered ablewood bureau, the sole item of the General’s which Respiration had found in the room. It was massive and black with a stout lock carved directly into the wood. Neither of them knew anything of lock-picking, and it was too heavy to move, and who knew what charms lurked on it anyway.
Respiration told Obdurate about the afternoon she spent with the Judicial Mezzo-Barritone, and how he had described justice as “not a struggle against our natures, but a striving toward reliability.” Obdurate told of his experiment with the Mad Earl’s biography.
“Would there be a purpose to your experiment beyond your curiosity?”
“None that I am aware of.”
“You never do anything without purpose.”
He considered. “This Mad Earl is an arresting fellow. I’d fancy that I’d like to meet him.”
“He’s smart enough to stay where there are no laws. Would you know him if you saw him?”
“The frontispiece of the book has a likeness drawn from his official portrait. He also has this bold, dire creature he travels with, something called a ‘weasel.’”
“I’ve heard of those.”
“What would you know of weasels?”
And so it went with them, provoking and teasing and laughing. As always the conversation would become too happy, and Obdurate would become aware of their situation.
He said, “We seem to be outside of all understanding. And patience.”
She pinched his shoulder. “Indeed, you always infringe the borders of my patience.”
“We have to expose the treachery. This secret. How much a monster he is.”
“What would be the purpose? There is nothing within The Compact, nothing within the Kingdom’s treaty between spirit and matter that says we have the right. We are the ones breaking the laws.”
“People will listen.”
“Or they won’t.”
She leaned upon his arm. “Either way, I will be ostracized for adultery. You will be exiled for low treason. His secret will stay safe. To tell his secret could break The Compact and destroy the city, possibly the Kingdom. I’ll not have that. Would you?”
Obdurate stared at the ceiling.
Respiration pulled a blanket around the mesh of chain locked around her hips. “The Justice said, ’The pursuit of reliability is paramount.’ What dissembling do you think he would do to maintain harmony?”
“My uncles told me that all mathematics, all sciences, all magics were models to be improved upon.”
“All things grow and change. And end.”
He took her chin. “New changes create opportunities.”
“Where could we go quickly enough that he could not find us?”
Finally, he sighed and lay his head back. She smiled and stroked his head.
“Look at the lights, Obdurate.”
He noticed for what seemed the thousandth time how the light played upon her face and her skin, and how it made her appear like some ethereal spirit, a sprit of the dusk entranced by the colors of its own demise.
They settled into each others’ arms and dozed until the waterclock tapped the fourth hour.
It disgusted him to leave by the very means that Greatsergeant’s great-grandfather had planned to betray the Kingdom. He edged through the thin stone passage and ducked to enter a cramped storm drain. Carefully, he edged along inside the wet, gritty drain. Finally, he slipped out of the drain opening and into the cool night air. He looked up into the starry sky and saw Rezhala full and red, and little Minqe a little blue sliver almost slipping behind the gabled roofs beyond the walls of the canal.
He climbed up the canal’s steep embankment to the backyards of Mehez Glade. He listened for footsteps, then stepped quickly between two houses to the street.
He rounded a corner and passed two Exults in cook’s aprons clucking to each other, their forearm feathers trimmed back to show their bare white skin. He turned and looked behind him. The Secure loomed behind the houses. The Greatsergeant Keep was obscured by trees and a house on the corner.
Obdurate walked a little farther and he found a rickshaw. He boarded and gave the driver an address.
As he traveled, Obdurate pulled out his handkerchief and flicked mud and grit from his boots. He watched the red moon behind the roofs and trees; Rezhala the determined, and Minque the clever again too far away.
The rickshaw stopped in front of a large house. A few lights on the first floor glowed with early morning activity, but the Adjutant knew by the large porches and blue-green paint that the house was a customary.
He stepped from the rickshaw just long enough to read the sign: The Customary of Three Shaded Moaltrees.
Obdurate passed another coin to the driver, and was taken home to his barracks.
Even in his dreams, the taste of salty crab lay upon his tongue.
He stood as a boy in a dim-lit, bare warehouse, looking up at the great men around him. Basha the Red roared with laughter, scraping a hatchet against a sharpening stone. Moolkai’s huge hand seized a bottle of wine. Someone pressed a stone into Fazgood’s hands, the stink of sweat somehow making the crab-taste sharper.
Tak-tak bristled his feathers. “The bottle! Do the bottle!”
And Fazgood slung the stone. The stone shattered the neck with a bright pop.
Moolkai wiped wine off with his arm and roared. “You little bastard!”
Everyone laughed, even Moolkai.
Something knocked Rap-rap-rap!
Moolkai now leaned close. Now, the room ablaze and the crab taste choked like smoke. “You’d forget us all, would you?”
The laugh died in Fazgood’s mouth. “No. Never.”
The room burned and people screamed. Tears pushed through Fazgood’s eyes. Someone had betrayed them all and Fazgood had to do something.
The door of the room. The room in the Customary.
Fazgood opened his left eye and did not break the rhythm of his breathing. The room lit dim pink.
Skullwarmer by right hand, cane by left, window across and to the left —
A woman’s voice: “You must awake!”
Fazgood squinted both eyes open.
The Earl affected a refreshed persona. “Yes, we have been awake for some time!”
“Keep your voice soft, please.”
He rolled his eyes. A chastisement before breakfast.
He forced a smile so that it would be heard in his voice. “I beg your pardon.”
“Breakfast is in one half an hour. Please wash and dress.”
He suppressed a groan and struggled to his feet. Despite the fan, his back and buttocks itched, soaked with sweat.
The faintest whisk of feet faded down the hall as she went to wake the other boarders.
His smile slackened into a hollow, exhausted gape. From the baggage came a wet snore. The Earl tapped Warren. The weasel rolled and fell to the floor with a thump.
He looked sleepily around the room. [What?]
“And good morning to you, good Brumpf.”
Still bent from sitting, Fazgood walked across the room to the bedroom door. “Foofaloof, it is time to rise.”
Calzjha whispered cheerily, “Yes! Thank you!”
Fazgood and Warren both grumbled.
The Earl peeled his undershirt from his back as he walked to the center of the room. He stood as straight as he could manage. He spat into his hand and swirled the fingers around his face and smacked his forehead to give respect to Zhazh of the Almost-Eternal Set-Up Line.
Which he followed with a deep gutteral breath and thumping his arms across his chest. He sang –- softly! — in Birqmuirish. “Mikaert! I am the sword of your champion! Mikaert! I will always fight beside your Blue Imperium! Mikaert! I will weep at your victory, for there will be no more evil to cleanse!”
He then bade Peace To The Sprits of Alumni From The College Of Incorrigibles. He looped his pinky fingers together, and spelled the Three Felonious Gestures.
Despite the Earl’s earnest assuaging of the divine every morning, his head swam still with sleep and doubts. This is why he came up with his own ritual. He scratched his butt and began.
Who Wants Me Dead? The Unnamed want me dead. The Unnamed live underground, and sneak around in the shadows, and can try to kill me at any time. The Three Kingdoms have ceased seeking my death, but now the Prevaricate would like to make a shadow puppet from my skin. The Prevaricate could send some crazed flying demon my way at any moment if he knew my location.
Most of The Family of Noise would Want Me Dead, and probably send out ultra-audible calamities meant for me. Some offended bereaved families at various plundered tombs, too many to remember, would Want Me Dead. Any of them could step from a crowd with a dagger. Any exiles from the First War of Imperial Unity would Want Me Dead. As would exiles from the Second War of Imperial Unity. And then from my youth, there’s…there’s…
Still can’t remember. Had he forgiven or forgotten an enemy in earnest?
Hadn’t he dreamed something? A fire in some sort of room?
Ever since leaving Adanikar, there was someone he kept forgetting! He couldn’t ask Warren or Calzjha, neither of them knew of his list (the list would cause Calzjha to erupt into philosophical enlightenment, and give Warren anxieties). Those he had named, he imagined them as he last saw them: the bloated Family puffing with rage; vain-glorious Birqmuir nobles chilled with indignation; captains of guards sullen and puffing for breath.
Who defeated them and escaped? I did. But…
Whatever or whoever he had forgotten Wanted Him Dead, day-after-day, it felt as if he had awakened with a cavity in his soul! Who had he forgotten?
As he thought of it, he was overwhelmed by the thought of buttery crispy seafood, and his teeth raged for moosecrab.
Now he fully-awakened, sharpened for whatever lay ahead, for perhaps his last day, again. To eat lentils for breakfast, still no moosecrab.
Calzjha knocked upon the sliding door. “Are you dressed?”
Fazgood swept up the robe laying upon the couch and slipped it on.
“Yes. Come in.”
The young man slid the door open and entered. His hair shone with grooming oil and his robe wrapped without a wrinkle.
“I have been anxious to see what is in the package.”
Fazgood rubbed grit from his eye. “Yes! Let’s have a look.”
He reached beside the luggage, picked up the Adanikarese box he acquired in the Foreign Due, and set it on the cushions. He slipped apart its lacquered flaps.
Fazgood said, “Yes! Here we are. Our grooming kit. The hair in my ears need burning.”
He lifted out a small roll of velvet and set it on the cushion.
Calzjha unrolled the cloth to reveal pockets which held tiny metal scissors, candles, vials, combs of bone and amber.
“Never mind those,” said the Earl. “Nothing keeps my life brighter than…”
He tugged out a thick envelope. Within, a comforting stack of Rahsic currency. The stiff cheque drafted from Hrikinik’s underhanded merchants would be deposited in a bank.
Warren scurried to the box laying on the floor. “You had said ‘fish sauce’, hadn’t you my liege?”
“I did.” He rattled and clinked through the box and pulled out a green porcelain bottle. Ink renderings of smiling fish chased each other around the container.
[Oh thank you, my liege!]
Warming to the moment, the Earl presented three stacked jars to Calzjha: “Aspar unguent, spiced oil, and that whatever lotion.”
The young man took the gift and bowed with mock solemnity. “My poor skin thanks you.”
“Save some of that for me, my nose has been drying out. What is this?”
He lifted out a cut crystal vial the length of a human fist and as large around. Its stopper was wrapped with an elaborate folded flower made of thin gold foil and sealed with gold wax.
The Earl read the label and smacked his lips. “’Vengeance-of-the-Lava-Lord Relish’? Wait!”
Warren and Calzjha froze.
“I do not remember placing this in the box. This could be a danger.”
Calzjha muttered, “I have never known Vengeance-of-the-Lava-Lord Relish when it wasn’t a danger.”
At that, a petal of the foil flower trembled and gave a tight metallic pang! Then again –- pang-pang! The flower trembled and the tapping continued, the sound like an annoying someone flicking a fingernail against a copper pot.
The sound was the symbol of Hrikinik, the Timpanate of Irregular, Faint Metallic Tapping.
Within the tapping came a faint, reedy whisper:
“Oh Fazgood! You great Comet! Hear this message! Eat my delicious relish with your uncivilized moose-crab. Do you remember us mixing this relish? No? Ha! It will bring the heat back to your soul that you sorely miss.”
The Timpanate’s laughter and tapping fell to silence.
The Earl sneered and returned the vial the box.
“What did he mean by ‘mixing.’ Did you make a special batch of that vile stuff?”
Puzzled, Fazgood shook his head. “I do not remember doing so. But he had sworn to help me get to Harmonium, and not interfere.”
Warren peered at the bottle. [Why?]
“He thought I would…”
He waved his hand. “…Cause rioting in the streets.”
[The Timpanate would enjoy that for its own sake. And he is bound by his oaths.]
A rap at the door gave them a start. “Please, guests. You have three minutes to shower.”
Despite the politeness, they knew this was a harsh command to move.
They bundled the presents back into the box and left Warren in charge of it. Down the stairs and out the veranda they padded to join the queue of sleepy, disheveled residents outside the solitary shower room, and with them spoke the benediction for the hot water. Fazgood let Calzjha to shower and leave back to the room, then the Earl rubbed as much hot water on himself as he could in his allocated three minutes.
He shouldered past a bleary Adactoid at the outhouse, gave the Rahsic benediction (“All blessings to the Eldest Daughter for her mercies and generosity”) then his personal benediction (Tap the head, then heart, then a swooping gesture which meant “Out the mind and out the soul and out the dragon’s breathing hole”), then. The piss then flowed on cue down the hole to be sluiced through the sewers to the river.
Return to their room, then dressed. Calzjha eyed Fazgood’s well-tailored suit with some jealousy. Fazgood tucked the skullwarmer into a pocket, as well as the bottle of relish (“You never know when a dinner will appear!” said the Earl). They could only use the combs on his wet hair, and then a touch of the pomade bar to get it to stay.
Warren sprang into the basket, and Calzjha closed the lid. Calzjha picked up the carrier and they stepped downstairs to the small communal room where they joined the freshening guests. The room crowded with about thirty beings concentrating upon their meals.
The Earl’s stomach was as a dawn after a terrible night’s storm. The others ate fruit and raw barley and slivers of fish. The customarian allowed for a small saucer with fish slivers to be placed into the basket for the Brumph. Fazgood took some cold tea and fish stock and tried to imagine it as moosecrab, and almost wept with frustration.
The seventh hour was time for the morning lecture. All helped with the clearing of the plates and the folding and stacking of the tables against the wall. They arranged the cushions to face a plain stucco wall.
An Adactoid customarian introduced as a thin, wide-eyed Adactoid strode to the wall.
“Who am I? I am your instructor, Kikpoktik. Who are you? You are my students. You are reminded daily of this: you are to study to pass your test to become a citizen of the Kingdom. Our sacred Compact demands this: it is the eternal contract drawn to keep all in harmony and all under protection spiritual, divine, physical and magical. Ignorance is not an excuse for insulting the Compact, for the gods and spirits do not forgive. Your ignorance risks the well-being of all.
“If you do not pass your test at the end of these weeks attending the customary, the least promising of you will be exiled. The more promising will be put to servitude creating the royal highways and allowed to test again in five years.”
Calzjha paled at that.
“This day,” said Kitpoktik, “you will be taught of the races of the Kingdom. You may have noticed that there are many races living and working in the Kingdom. What do they do? They work at many different tasks, but all share the same responsibilities as citizens. What of these races? There are several races, and they take many forms and shapes.”
Kitpoktik did not gesture or pace, or even change the pitch of his low droning voice.
I am bored already.
The Earl glanced at Calzjha to find distraction. However, Calzjha followed the lecture attentively, despite knowing this subject well already from his studies in Adanikar.
Kitpoktik took a breath. “To be specific, there are eight races in the Kingdom. What are these eight races? I shall begin with myself. I am an Adactoid.”
The basket rustled. [This of forty-one law-knowing races throughout the world.]
Faz knew where this was going. Warren had a love of knowledge, especially his own.
[Yes, Warren. A gracious thanks to you. But I can only learn so much at once.]
[Oh! My apologies, my liege!]
Calzjha kept his hand firmly on the basket’s lid.
“The race of Adactoids are born and bred in the crystalline Resmeraseras Mountain range. The Adactoids pass along knowledge through reproduction. How do they do this? Every new progeny of Adactoid adapts itself to the needs of its progenitors. How does it –“
Yes, yes. In Birqmuir, there was that fourth generation Adactoid soldier the Viscount employed. It was a blue siege engine the size of a house.
The Earl had endured enough lectures at the College of Incorrigibles, both giving and receiving. Being lectured on things you know in a droning, purposefully measured voice by an immobile and nearly listless presenter? There must be an Official Hell for that.
My Master Craftsman candidate Bone-Gaff would throttle this fellow by lunch and had the body sold for beer money.
“For Adactoids have two genders. What are these two genders? The two genders are adula or “those-who-emote”; and imula or “those-who-think”. I am imula. Adactoids reproduce…”
I wonder what happened to young Bone-Gaff?
“…conversation within this relationship surpasses the correct level of intimacy and understanding, then an infant is conceived…”
“’Approve my studies or I’ll slit your throat,’ he’d say. ‘Try to catch me in my office!’ I’d say and we’d —
[I know this! Discorsive reproduction! One of the seventeen known methods of reproduction! Ow! What is wrong with this lid? My liege, could you get Calzjha to open this basket?]
The basket rustled and shook.
The Earl sighed. Calzjha smiled and tightened his hold.
* * *
Later that morning, the group of aspiring citizens scurried down the street after the customarians. In the back of the groups, Fazgood renewed his whispered objections:
“My head aches. I do not care who does what with which. The damn population’s here.”
Calzjha glided along the sidewalk. “How are you to be a good citizen if you do not understand your fellow citizen?”
“What’s to understand? Just boil it down. Here! You should agree with an Adactoid all the time. Then you do what you want to do anyway, and when the Adactoid finds out you apologize. Then leave the Adactoid to take the blame. That is all one needs to know. I would have given us an hour of our lives back.”
There were no interjections from Warren since halfway through the lecture; first due to his pouting, then the warm and dark basket lulled him into a nap.
Their conversation switched from Rahsic to Adanikarese in a way that would have bewildered casual listeners.
“You must study for your test.”
“I must, to keep up the ruse.”
“Warren should not help you with your tests.”
“To be a capable leader you must surround yourself with those who are capable. Do you agree?”
“That would help to rule.”
“How am I to know if Warren is capable if I do not let him take the tests?”
Calzjha gave a vexed look.
Their group of aspiring citizens scuttled along the walkway after Citizen Kitpoktik. The citizen’s heels clacked on the pavement.
Calzjha whispered, “Those shoes are made of canvas. How can Kitpoktik make them make them sound so hard?”
“They are lacquered with Kitpoktik’s humor.”
Calzjha’s eyes widened. “Do you jest?”
“Yes, but without any satisfaction, as usual.”
They approached a crowd gathered around a wall. Within the shade of the building’s awning, one could see that large brown sheets of paper had been affixed to the brick. The crowd read, engrossed.
A Fabri had piled itself beside them and wrapped around its speechmaking bagpipe, “What…is they?”
The customarian looked impassively. “What do you mean?”
The rumples twisted from the exertion. “Why the crowd? What…are they? Doing?”
“This is a tradition of our city. We gather and read from the walls. Why do we gather? To learn. To share. To be inspired.”
Kitpoktik turned and clacked towards the crowd. Some of the men and Adactoids and Exults made room and gave bemused glances to the newcomers.
Fazgood gave well-practiced sheepish smiles and nods of appreciation. Calzjha glided behind, averting eye contact.
They read.The Second Chapter: His Discovery by The Purposeful Cleric When first we find Fazgood, he is but a young boy wandering without society or king. He is begging and abandoned along the Katokol Road. Living only from stealing from the able merchants of the road. Sleeping in the harsh solitudes of the wilderness. Wandering only between life and death!
Fazgood spoke from the side of his mouth, “’Solitudes’? What are ‘solitudes’?”
Calzjha whispered, “It means ‘lonely places’.”
Fazgood spat in Rahsic, “I was chased from decent company!”
Hearing the tone of invective, Kitpoktik turned. “You do not like it, Mehzpersist?”
Catching himself, Fazgood dipped his chin in deference. “Good customarian! I meant no disrespect to the skillful wordwrights of this learned city. I find little to hold my interest in this…story.”
“This is a ‘dusk-thicket tale’. Everyone loves dusk-thicket tales.”
“What is a ‘dusk-thicket tale’?”
“What is a ‘dusk-thicket tale?’ They are tales of common folk accomplishing great acts for the common good.”
A Therihe in business clothes leaned between them. “If I may add, good customarian?”
“What are your credentials, citizen?”
“I am a journeyman printer with the Pen-and-Crafts Guild. I helped print this broadsheet.”
“Ah! I would appreciate the supplementation.”
The guildsman addressed Fazgood. “Stranger, dusk-thicket tales have much to recommend them! Heroes in dusk-thicket tales start out fools, but end up good and decent.”
Calzjha nodded. “Ah. That is good. Inspiring.”
The customarian placed his hand on the guildsman’s shoulder. “Did you read ‘The Gold-Leaf Proctor’?”
“I helped with its printing! Wasn’t it affecting!”
Calzjha asked, “What is ‘Gold-Leaf Proctor’?”
The guildsman beamed. “A moving tale! A young Exult fledgling strikes out from home to make her mark as an artist. However, she is a silly and willful maiden-hen and refuses to join an artist’s guild. In her travels, she stays at a remote farming community. She is destitute, of course, and in exchange for food, she teaches the local children the basics of writing and pencraft.”
Kitpoktik’s eyes widened into an actual expression of excitement. “Then a band of demons struck out from the Forest of the Prevaricate. They surrounded her little village and attacked! What does she do? She tended to the wounded and lead the resistance to the siege.”
“Ah! How moving, yes!” Calzjha nodded.
“The siege is broken by the Prince’s Border Guard. Then what happens? Just when the day is won, she is slain by the last arrow launched by the demons. She dies in her lover’s embrace, declaring her happiness that she died a useful –”
The Adactoidoid hissed. “You desire to say something, Mehzpersist?”
“These are heroes? Fools who wise up in time to be murdered?”
The guildsman flicked a fly from a broadsheet. “You would need to read to appreciate.”
Within the inner pocket of the man’s suitcoat, a doll sat snug. Its skinny brown head protruded from the lapel, and its lumpy body pressed the line of the lapel away from the man’s breast, a stuffed sock and painted brindled brown. Black buttons and whiskers created the face of a weasel.
The guildsman still took a step back. “I would not wish to spoil the tale for those in attendance…”
A chorus of voices around them: “Yes, do not spoil it for them!” “I read it in the military but be gracious.” “I would thank you if you did not.”
The Kingdom military were given first access to all newly-scribed literature in the Kingdom, as reward for service. These readers were former soldiers and sailors who were (Fazgood was dumbfounded) re-reading a book. And so taken by the tale, they walked about with manques of Warren.
A few of these people reached within their jackets and shawls and adjusted their passengers.
Whispered the Earl, “Are those affinity dolls you carry?”
The guildsman leaned on his heels, beaming with pleasure. “Many who read the tale wish to have an affinity for the Mad Earl’s daring and endurance! And the weasel companion helps us to gain that affinity. We become the Mad Earl in a small way.”
Fazgood pondered the broadsheet in plain bewilderment. He remembered the cold rain, the gnawing hunger, the punches and kicks from those he robbed.
His chest wracking as he wept from lonliness.
His heart clenched in anger.
How dare someone tell this!