13 08 2014

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

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

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

Fluxion! Were any touching that wall when it struck?

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

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

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

Sand will not hold the weight of the stone above!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Do you see? The Dropsy comes!]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the stone floor Mehzadapt lay, scuffed and bewildered.

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

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

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

[Has it seen or smelled you?]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thunder slapped the ears and slammed the air.

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

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

Obdurate and Respiration clung to each other exhausted and shaking.

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

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

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

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

[My liege!]

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

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

[Follow it!]


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But I am your bodyguard.”

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

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

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

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

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

“You will hold the wall!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We do not have much time. Hurry!”

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

He led the Inspector to the guest room.

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

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

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

Around the bed rest the three black wooden secretaries.

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

[Warren, are you following the Dropsy?]

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

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

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

[But my liege, what of you?]

[I will be ready for –]

“What do you see?” the Inspector pressed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A stink of rotten eggs rose in the room.

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

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

Scrabbling fingers unfolded. Nothing.

A faint crackling permeated the room.

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

“Just take it,” Fazgood said slyly.

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

The Earl made himself brighten. “Very well!”

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

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

“This is the device. Do you want it?”

“Give it to me!”

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

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

“How does it work?” asked the Inspector.

“You just put it on. Wait!”

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

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

The Earl ducked.

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

The demon-disease struck the wall by the window.

So shoot, you ill-met!

The writhing blotch sprang.

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


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

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

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

From behind him came a voice, saying:

“This is…singular.”

“Now comes the difficult part,” Fazgood whispered.

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

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

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

The Earl stood, waiting.

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

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

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

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

“Where…is…my body?”

The crowd heard this unnatural intonation, and silenced.

The mask has a sympathetic attachment to the Triumph.

The creature looked at Fazgood. The Earl considered options.

He pointed to the opening. “Out there.”

It asked again. “Where…”

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

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

Then citizens screamed. “Demon! Demon!”

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

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

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

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

“I will! I will…”

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

The creature looked right to glimpse the Triumph.

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

It raised its right arm.

The ground shook.

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

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

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

It yowled. The trembling ceased.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What used to be Mehzadapt heard and gave small shrieks.

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

He turned back inside and sprang across the ruined bed.

“Almost lost you!”

He snatched up the rosebush-shaped bottle and dashed.

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

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

Came the cry of a citizen:

“Hurray for the Mad Earl!”

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

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

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

Then the Earl looked to the General.

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

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

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

The scouts shook their heads and protested.

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

They roused enough to be appalled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So passed Mehzadapt, and his reputation.

The deputies staggered back down the stairs.

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

“They may still try to shoot us or –“

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

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

Muck up my plans, will you!

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

Orange flame burst as tall as a man!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How would a dusk thicket tale write such an end?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I must be quicker!


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


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

The sobbing built. “Long stay the Concord!”

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

That satisfaction did him in.

It just slipped from his lips.

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

“Everything is sorted out.”

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

He huffed. “Ah just go ahead!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It feinted to the right.

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

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

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

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

His flesh seared.

It eats!

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

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

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

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

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

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

He opened his eyes.

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

“Kill the god-poxied thing!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It is on the bed!”

Again! I have to draw maps!

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

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

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

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

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

The demonic disease rose to engulf her.

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

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

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

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

Laying beside the bed, Fazgood looked at his legs.

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

I cannot go into shock!

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

Calzhja crawled to his side.

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

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

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

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

“I will buy you another pair!”

“With my money!”

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

“Close the door! To delay the smoke!”

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

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

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

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

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

[She is actually proving quite useful.]

[Are you well?]

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

[I will have all prepared.]

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

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

Hands grabbed Fazgood.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh! That was me!”

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

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

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

They carried the Earl through the backyards.

In Cliffside-Bastles, the residents crowded the street.

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

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

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

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

Calzhja whispered. “Was this your plan?”

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




23 07 2014

Swathed in a purple velveteen shift, Calzjha looked back up the brick walk and waved at the blockade in front of the Terhane Residences. “Oh soldiers! Oh police! I thank you for making the Kingdom safe! If you are to gain your pass, you could come visit me in the Foreign Due!”

The soldiers looked upon her, stunned with adoration, almost red with jealousy of the captain who firmly guided her by her elbow to the Residences.

Warren peeked from the velveteen ready bag under the captain’s arm, [Shut up! We are through the gate!]

“I am so glad! Are there no comfortable shoes in the Kingdom?”

The three walked up the path to the three-story residence of the Birqmuir ambassador. The house was little different from the homes and businesses in the city below, with gables and peaked roof. In the late afternoon sun, the red brick also seemed to blush at Calzjha’s approach.

Calzjha was giddy at such strong, competent military attention. However, the captain’s pace had been measured and hard. His face was fixed, pained, and hollow.

Obdurate appraised his state from a comfortable distance: Hands are shaking a little, yes. The backs of my knees feel like cold fat. Like when I drilled for days at army camp. Or when I did the math recital with that fever. Funny I can note this with all that goes on, with forging the General’s name on the pass we just used, and smuggling fugitives into foreign hands. What a callow fool I am to believe I could do this.

Warren looked to the man. [Calzjha! Invigorate the captain! He is looking slack again!]

She pulled the captain’s arm close and massaged it along the creases in the muscles. She ran her free hand along his spine, pressing firmly along the vertebrae in a mysterious manner. Obdurate’s face tingled, and his breath became freer.

“I do not have much more nerve,” he said.

[Captain, I am about to betray a confidence: the Earl himself said you were impressive.]

The Earl? Impressive? Me?

The thoughts were as disjointed from fatigue as from surprise.

Obdurate remembered sitting in his office, daydreaming of making the Earl’s acquaintance, and gaining the man’s respect.

Was it a month ago? No,…it was not even a week past.

“I am flattered,” he muttered.

[Indeed you should be. He said you were made of stern stuff. The Earl does not impress. He avoids being impressed. You impressed him.]

They came to the narrow, lacquered door.

“I wish I could say…it actually makes a difference.”

[I believe the Earl would be impressed by that sentiment as well.]

To Obdurate’s surprise, his resolve gathered at that.

“Captain,” Calzjha released his arm and guided a strand of her hair back into place. “you should call for their attention.”

“What should I say?”

“Just call for their attention.”

The captain raised his hand to his mouth. “I call for your attention!”

Calzjha gave a musical laugh. “ Much like the Earl.”

The door slid open. Obdurate caught a glimpse of Calzjha’s eyes; they twinkled with excitement.

Appalled, he realized, Enthus! Calzjha enjoys this madness!

Standing in the doorway was a tall and broad Birquir man stood in a formal Rahsic blue tunic. His red hair and beard were woven into tight braids.

He said in sharp, precise Rahsic, with the whistling consonants of the Birquir: “You will have to make way. The ambassador must leave. No petitions accepted today.”

A twig-thin Adactoid with pale skin peered from behind the man’s shoulder.

Warren chittered! [Ambassador!]

The Adactoid’s hands rose to smack its face. “Is it true? It is true! The Public Works informed me that the Earl was in prison! I thought ‘They are spoofed!’ Yet here stands a telepathic weasel!”

Warren wriggled to stand straighter.

[I am Warren, Chief Council for the Earl of Weiquant. Whom am I addressing?]

“I am Irokoinr, ambassador for the Empire of Birqmuir.”

[I recognize your name. Would your parent be Nyroyn, who accompanied the Earl in destroying the Abomination?]

The ambassador gave a sigh of a whistle orchestra whose members were about to be asked to repay a substantial loan. “Yes.”

Warren chittered again, [Blessed day! To finally be home! We –]

The weasel caught himself, and took a breath. [On behalf of the Earl of Weiquant, a man blessed as the nobility of the god Khurkherl, Who Wields A Sword In One Hand And A Bigger Sword In The Other; the same man who –]

Irokoinr lowed, miserable. “Who saved the life of my logic-sire, Nyroyn, yes. What do you want, councilor?”

[We request repatriation. Rather, I request repatriation. This is Captain Obdurate Childteacher, Adjutant to the Army of Invitation. The Captain requests sanctuary. He will share a valuable method of numeromancy in exchange for opportunity under the Empire.]

The Adactoid peered to the grim, dazed soldier. “The Earl sent us a message of this new method.”

Calzjha brushed a sleeve against Warren to prompt him.

Warren closed his eyes and growled, then opened them: [This is Calzjha from the land called The Womb of The Artful Nurturers. She is an agent working for the Earl. This one needs a home, somewhere.]

Calzjha said, “You must help! The Earl is in prison!”

[We also request sanctuary for the Earl’s lover! She is Respiration Greatsergeant.]

“Goodwife Greatsergeant!”

The ambassador slumped further. “You wish sanctuary for her? No wonder the Emperor is spending more time communing in the Dreamland this week. He must have determined the Earl was in the hemisphere again. Enter.”

The Adactoid waved a spindly hand. The Birquir doorman guided them to a comfortable anteroom decorated with shelves holding tiny stone sculptures, and the leaning sitting stools common of households in the Empire. Another wave, and the doorman left them.

Obdurate said, “I do not go without Respiration. I will tell you nothing without her safety assured.”

“And you must spring the Earl!” cried Calzjha.

“Do not worry about the Earl and jails.”

The ambassador chuckled, puzzling over the captain’s concern for Respiration. “Any prison he is in, he is out of soon enough. You, captain, must have quite the method to have impressed the Earl.”

[I can attest to its efficacy, ambassador.]

Warren gave a brief account of the captain’s accomplishments using his method, including the tracking of General Greatsergeant.

The Adactoid considered. “It is possible that if you were to be removed from the city, that you would find ample opportunity to prove your value. But why? Why is the Earl here?”

Calzjha took it upon herself to very quickly tell of their journey to find moosecrab, which was a quest for vengeance in disguise. The ambassador shook its head.

“I stay here. What did my logic-sire used to say? My logic-sire used to say ‘Fazgood has always been a skinny smartmouth with a throwing hand. Stay out of his way, for he will lead you into danger. Who else would think to storm the Abomination via its colon?’”

The soldier exclaimed, “Yes, he is a marvel– hold a moment. ‘Colon’ did you say?”’

Both Warren and Calzjha cast their gaze around the room.

The captain pressed them. “’The Nimblest Man’ said he had crawled down the Abomination’s throat!”

“Hm!” said the ambassador. “Did you read close? Not close enough. The book used the word ‘orifice’. The book leads one to believe it as ‘throat’, but I assure you, my logic-sire was there, and it was a colon.”

Turning to his compatriots, Obdurate gasped. “You knew this?”

Warren twitched. [The world does not want heroes to wriggle up the anuses of monsters! A civilization demands a little…dignity…of its saviors.]

Her smile straining, Calzjha said, “He swore us to secrecy. Fazgood is embarrassed by it. It is still an act of astonishing bravery.”

“But the colon?!”

[This is why he swore us never to discuss it! People always have such disgust –]

The captain waved his hands in utter surrender. “Is there anything in that book that was as I believed? I do not care anymore! How will we get to the Empire?”

Shrugging nonchalantly, the ambassador leaned forward. “How would I know? A boat sails after green-night fades. It sails from the north dock at the pier beside the Customs House of the Blue Swords. All who sail on it would be conveyed around the Teplar Sea to the coast of Liedmakt. Why do I say this? I convey this for those interested in maritime schedules.”

Both the soldier and the occasional woman puzzled at that response.

[The ambassador] explained Warren, [must be circumspect, in order to delay determination. He did not tell us how to escape, only about boat schedules.]

Asked Obdurate, “Where is the Earl now?”

[The Earl has been released to the General’s custody! They are to return to the keep to move the mask to a new hiding place. He believes the General is planning a betrayal –]

At that, the adjutant grew grim. “I am not staying here! I am done with the General and his treachery! I go to Respiration!”

[We are to stay here and wait for the Earl!]

The captain threw open the door and dashed outside.

Calzjha cried, “You cannot go alone!”

She struggled to her feet and swore at the skirt. Spitting a stream of foreign frustrations, she watched Obdurate run into the dusk.

[Fluxion! Fluxion! Fluxion!] squealed Warren, [Seize this bag and after him!]

Calzjha kicked her shoes away. “How is a kingdom that calls itself healthful –“

She tore away the shift at just above the knee. “ — to have clothing where one cannot move!”

Sighed the ambassador. “Why can I not go speak with the spirits for days at a time? What bliss would that be?”

Calzjha grabbed the bag with the weasel and sprinted into the night.


*         *         *


Mehzadapt wiped itching and damp palms upon his jacket lapels. “What did you say?”

The deputy reported, “The police came and hustled us away. When I said we were fulfilling our duties watching the keep, the sergeant of them smacks my head and says ‘The Greatsergeants do not like your smell. Stay away, all of you!’”

The Inspector looked to the façade of the scout headquarters. The plug-hatted scouts from all over the city were still paying their respects to the magnate, but now the crowds were more idling than mourning. All passersby sneaked glances at Mehzadapt, who caught many gloating looks.

Mehzadapt unfolded the note and again read the note that had been delivered a mere half-hour before, writ in tiny scratch-like letters:


To the Scout Inspector Mehzadapt:

Our Mutual Friend seeks to relocate his gains this evening. He will have all away and be saved from scrutiny. They are securely hidden under trap. Be on watch for three casks. I may show you, if I may be brought from under lock and my exile expedited. If not, know that Our Friend will be sparely assisted. Only a few will be needed to seize the moment.




As a boy in Harmonium, I remember taking oaths with others on our names to honor my mentors. Weren’t you the red-haired chap?


The last gave him a jolt: What else does he remember? Could he have regained memory?

Mehzadapt remembered vividly the moment to which Fazgood referred. In the warehouse that would eventually prove his pyre, Uzkuk the Black Growth, leader of the Eleven Circles, had them all swear By the truth of my sacred name, the word that describes me, I will honor the Brigade of the Eleven Circles…

The first question asked of all who took civic duties, police, soldiers, civil servants: Have you ever broken an oath sworn by the truth of your name?

The old magnate had given Mezhadapt as pass as a reward for betraying the Eleven Circles. This began the Inspector’s decades of slavish support for that old man.

“Did you see the General?” he asked the deputy.

“Some soldiers are standing around outside the edge of the square. That Fazgood carried in three small black casks. Next, the servants all left, very upset.”

That leaves Greatsergeant’s wife and Fazgood inside. Greatsergeant himself would be too smart or too arrogant to do the dirty work himself. Greatsergeant is one, certainly, and the other two are dupes. Perhaps one is the captain.

“The soldiers are aiding a crime. They will either thank us later or be condemned. We go the square.”

Said a deputy, “But the police have evicted us.”

“The police will thank us or be condemned. We go in,” said the Inspector, “and make an arrest. Gather every deputy you find. Gather at the east arterial gate in one quarter hour! Go, all of you!”

The deputies scrambled across the plaza. Other scouts and passersby noted the flurry of activity, but Merhiazadapt did not care. He clapped his hand on Cornpudding’s shoulder. Deputy Cornpudding, you secure the hidden entrance.”

That deputy puffed. “I know only of the canal, but I don’t know where –“

The Inspector seized the fat man’s shoulder. “Your friend would find it quick. This is the important task at of your career. Your friend needs to insure that the Earl disappears.”

“What of the captain and that – that Foofaloof?” (((

“All of them are going on the Royal Road, no matter what the truth of this matter. But the Earl has to vanish. All will say ‘he escaped’ or some nonsense, but he will be gone. Go! Be in place by one quarter hour as the sun sets!”

“I have not enough time!”


Cornpudding jogged to a rickshaw.


*       *       *


Fazgood carried the first wooden cask into the kitchen and opened it.

Respiration muttered to the Earl. “Of course you send the servants away before I have them carry these upstairs.”

He removed smaller boxes, a sheaf of foolscap paper, and brushes. He placed the items beside an exposed timber. Each cask had been made as a portable secretary. They were identical: black lacquered ablewood, square, about the length of Fazgood’s forearm. The General had bought them in haste from the same woodwright, with Fazgood providing expert approval. The soldiers and the Earl brought them to the keep. The General told his wife. “Take these and help this fool move the object.”

After shutting the door, the Earl said. “I was planning your husband’s ruin. How do you fare?”

“My lover is tortured near to death, I am a pariah, and my husband is giving me orders.”

Fazgood paused on the stairs, receiving a message from Warren. He gritted his teeth. “Obdurate is well and you will see him soon. I would prefer that he stay put, but apparently he is running here and creating commotion.”

“He is well!”

“Yes, he is well! And about to complicate my plan! We must have these secretaries upstairs now!”

They hustled one secretary each upstairs to the Greatsergeant’s bedroom. His left knee tweaked a bit on the second trip up the stairs, where she carried the remaining secretary and he struggled with a large sack of dry barley.

He wiped sweat from his brow and ran down to his old bedchamber. Seeing the decanters of perfumes and unguents were still by the window, the Earl laughed and seized the gold-stoppered bottle of relish. Two fingers worth of the infernal condiment glistened through the cut glass. The Earl shoved the relish into his blazer pocket then carried the box of decanters to the top of the stairs overlooking the anteroom.

“Help me,” he said. “Find all of the liquor, all of the lamp oil, and every bottle of perfume you have. Pour them on the papers downstairs. Splash them on the furniture. Make a trail along the walls to puddle just within the hallway.”

Realization struck the Goodwife and made her gape as if slapped. “You mean to burn…”

“We do not have time to talk!”

“I know,” she said. “I had always dreamed this moment. The lamp oil is kept by the servants’ rooms. Use the cloth in your room.”

Fazgood spun and smiled at her innovation. “Yes! That is the plan! And Respiration?”

The Goodwife turned back up the stairs.

“Save that tziembroask.”

She laughed and ran downstairs.

Suddenly, the door burst open.

The captain and Calzjha stood in the anteroom, panting. Warren sprang from the basket and staggered across the floor, dizzy from being tossed about during the sprint.

Heaved the captain. “Respiration!”

“Obdurate, you idiot!” she cried.

They embraced and kissed.

The Earl said. “The soldiers! Someone bar — ”

Calzjha had already slid the bar home and secured the door. Hands pounded against it.

She turned and looked up at him, her face glowing with excitement. Her dress was torn further; a rend split well up her right thigh. Her bodice was loosened and plunged deep. Calzjha looked to the lovers embracing, then back up to the Earl.

“Well?” she said, with mock expectancy.

“Your, ah, your…ships are about to sail…” He swallowed and made to pull his hands up his chest and pointed to her.

Pinching the fabric beneath her arms and wriggling up to secure the dress anew.

Outside, someone pounded on the door.

At last! the Earl laughed.

His temper burst forth, throaty and booming. “Oil! Liquor!”

Respiration sprang to the kitchen.

“All sharp objects to me! Get ready to fight!”

All tasks were accomplished with blinding efficiency. Along the hallway of the second story, they lined cuticle knives, cutlery, hairpins, and cherished heirloom weapons along the floor. Fazgood handled all of them, remembering their balance and weight. He snatched up the remaining bottle of tziembroask.

“Stay up here,” he said to the assembled group. “when the Inspector comes, remember your lies from Warren’s script.”

He marched to the contemplation room, now stripped of the tiny paintings of ancestors and the fine crafted furniture. He walked to the window facing Lanthornmount Square.

Beneath, Greatsergeant’s voice cursed.

Across the Square, near the tea vendor, stood a short man with copper-hair.

Fazgood waved to Mehzadapt, beckoning.



Would you do me a favor?

19 07 2014

I have a Facebook author page. I’m gunning for 100 Likes, which would help me get the word out more about the cool stuff all of you are doing, and the new stuff I’m doing. If you want, I’ll friend you back and post the thing I find most interesting about you.


16 07 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What a terrible blow for the Foofaloof.”

“The poor, dear Foofaloof.”

Calzjha’s heart panged at their sympathy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The General looked again upon the Citadel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He opened his hands to beseech the crowd.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dismay swept the crowd.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[You make ill with your presence!]

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

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

[So I will.]

[Then do it.]

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

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


*         *         *


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Perhaps something to draw the police away?]

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

[Yes. I hope he is well enough.]

[He will be.]

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

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

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

[Yes, my liege.]

The Earl looked to the men with anticipation.

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

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

Fazgood eyed it glumly. “Ah. That.”

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

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

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

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

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

The Earl grimaced in the stark light.

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

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

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

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


*       *       *


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You knew nothing,” said Varalam.

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

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

“Perhaps he was spying,” suggested Tlezjoy.

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

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

“I would never be bored,” said Growly.

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

Mehzadapt rose and leaned out the window.

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

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

The three looked around the empty sidewalk.

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

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

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

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

*         *         *


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

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

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

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

Greatsergeant nodded, quick smiling nods.

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

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

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

“What do you wonder?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That is loyalty,” the Earl remarked.

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

“Respiration would be no one’s fool.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Who would this citizen be?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My captain will account for his attackers.”

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

“I am a paragon. I already have him.”

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

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

“Affections makes one careless.”

“To save the kingdom.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

“It was foolish to go against me.”

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

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

“He said that?”

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

“I cannot help his ignorance.”

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

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

“You must be accustomed to such jealousies.”

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

“Why keep her? She seems miserable.”

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

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

“She will.”

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

“She is practical.”

“Abomination is quite an aphrodesiac.”

“She will accept the truth.”

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

The General’s eyes came alive. “Yes.”

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


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

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

The Earl made to listen.

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

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

“Yes, I did.”

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

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

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

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

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

“I want to move it to a safer place.”

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

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

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

“And fidelity braids are infallible.”

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

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

“Tell me what you would do.”

“Creating an impercept is not difficult.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Earl cast his mind to his familiar.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[I just had a lesson from General Greatsergeant.]

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

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

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

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

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

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





9 07 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Pleasantry thins the blood.”

“It does not.”

“It thins my blood.”

“You are jealous.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A low, mean chuckle.

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

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

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

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

“Deputy, I brought one for you.”

“I just ate.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fazgood almost punched the man for that slap.

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

“You lack much more.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Expect to wait.”

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But he is punctual?”

“I am sure he will be here.”

“I will return. I thank you.”

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

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

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

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

[But…the Inspector would not dare –]

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

[What can we do?]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Praise to all gods.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Watch for him!]

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

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

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

[My liege, there!]

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

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


*         *         *


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

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

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

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

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

Behind the Adactoid, the door creaked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Adactoid’s expression darkened.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The two entered, eyes watering at the stench.

Calzjha asked, “What is wrong with him?”

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

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

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

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

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

“—be on our way.”

The gargling smothered into a low moan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Said the Earl. “Be quiet.”

“What – what…?”

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

“Those – those wretches tried drown to me!”

“Calzjha, seize him.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obdurate swallowed back a sob and nodded.

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

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

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

*         *         *


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

Cornpudding stood shadowed in the doorframe, eyes downcast.

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

“Your close friend is lacking discipline.”

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

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

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

“So they gained advantage and the captain escaped.”

“He did.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thin lips twisting, the deputy considered that.

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

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

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

“I am looking into that,” Mehzadapt said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Inspector’s foot scuffed the ablewood floor.

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

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

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

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

How does he imagine he is justified?

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

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

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

Tlezjoy tightened but said nothing.

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

The knot of deputies stopped whispering and took notice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


*         *           *


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

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

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

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

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

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

“There you are, squire.”

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

Fazgood chuckled. “They are very wicked!”

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

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

Calzjha peeped, “What of your plan?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Was this in your plan?”

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

“That man was going to kill him.”

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

“Yes,” said the Earl.

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

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

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

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

“Leave. Just leave the city.”

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

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

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

The goodwife deduced immediately.

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

Calzjha asked, “What is that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That is what I would do.”

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

Fazgood amended. “To save my hide!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then all was quiet and dark.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

“No. I am not leaving,” Fazgood said.

“What? What are you talking about?”

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

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

She listened, fists clenched.

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

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

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

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

The door opened, pushing the cloth at the bottom.

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

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

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

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

The elderly maid’s expression plummeted into disbelief.

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

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

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

That maid retreated.

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

“Ah! How you will both suffer!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I am tendering my resignation, your highness.”

“What! Goodwife! What is this?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Granted, squire. I thank you.]

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

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

“For you, goodwife, yes.”

“That will be a welcome change.”

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

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


25 06 2014

Standing beside his seat in the back of the classroom, Fazgood continued the recitation. “Sagacious, expository, infusive, crystalline, asexual and sexual. Those are the six forms of reproduction found within the Kingdom, Citizen Customary.”

Kitpoktik’s eyes were narrow, grim slits. His jaw clenched. “Did you recite all six, Pehzpersist? Yes, you did recite all six.”

The Earl sat back down, and received the puzzled amazement of his fellow aspirants with a gentle smile. Kitpoktik whirled to the blackboard and returned to the review of biologies.

Fazgood thought, [Your biology studies have given you great advantage, squire.]

[Thank you, my liege.]

Calzjha glanced over, her look of haughty Foofaloof affirmation, followed by an annoyed, knowing Calzjha frown. The Earl suppressed a smile.

[This is the third time the customary has called upon me this morning. Has our customary decided to find reason to have me evicted?]

[Perhaps if you hadn’t dozed through all the classes, my liege.]

[I doubt I’ll be sleeping this morning. Kitpoktik was never this interesting before.]


“Yes, customary?” he blinked innocently.

The customary’s face pinched from concentration. The Earl knew Kitpoktik was looking for any sign of note-glancing or Foofaloof-prompting.

“What,” said the customary, “ is the school leaving age of the eight races?”

Fazgood kept his gaze even and unblinking, straight into the eyes of the inquisitor.

[Have at it! I can handle any customary’s task.]

The Earl rose to his feet, [Do not get full of yourself, Warren. Keep your mind on the subject.]

[Yes, my liege. For Exult fledglings, it is twelve years. For Adactoid offspring, it is after the answering of their Second Question. For Booloob squeaks: the successful recitation of the Plasticising Warble.]

“Customary, for Exult fledglings, it is… (he made to grasp for the answer)…twelve years. For Adactoid offspring: after the answering of their Third Question. For Booloob squeaks: it –”

Kitpoktik pounced!

“Is it the Third Question for Adactoid offspring? It is not! Such an Adactoid should have graduated from guild apprenticeship! Who can answer this question? Khuoro can answer this question!”

Fazgood bowed his head and sat. He did note that his classmates looked upon him with curt nods, satisfied and impressed with his efforts.

[But I knew that!] sulked the weasel.

[If we look too clever, we stand out. We must allow the occasional mistake so to save the esteem of the other students, and avoid the customary’s curiosity.]

[The octopus’s lament, my liege.]

[Indeed,] thought the Earl, not knowing entirely what was meant.

The basket rustled, [To be clever enough to hide so well, yet not have anyone know of the cleverness. From the old Adanikarese poem.]

[Ah! But I knew that.]

[I am sure you did, my liege.]

Fazgood glared at the basket and kept his thought to himself:

One of these days, I really ought to study books.

Then with a snort: But “school leaving age”? Those are not useful questions! How do you pick members of a rival Birqmuir clan from a crowd? What is the best bribe for an Adanikarese petty noble? What salutation will keep any assassin from killing you? What the average citizen learns is a bucket of mud!

After the class was dismissed, the aspirants gathered on the still, sun-bright porch for lunch of cold barley and fish sauce. They squeezed into the shadows along the purple brick wall as best they could and chatted.

Khuro dipped a corner of roots into river water. “Did you see the Cumulid decked for jezr-ji? What fun it was!”

Interjected the husband, “We ran up the Arterial to catch it!”

Both Calzjha and Fazgood’s breath stopped.

Khuoro said, “Last night, we watched it sweep over the Amusatorium. We ran to catch up with it, but it had drifted north and along the canals.”

Others chimed in:

“We saw people playing in the streamers, like they were under a great flower!”

“Do you think it will come out again tonight?”

“We were sad that you were not with us!”

Both Calzjha and Fazgood shrugged off and made half-promises to join them that evening. In the chatter, the Earl started mumbling many imprecations and pleadings to very many gods.


*         *         *


As Fazgood had been answering questions at the customary, at that same time, Obdurate was watching the army lotcaster assemble the sympatile. As she did so, Obdurate remembered what the Earl had told him last night, between smacking lips from the bitter tziembroask:

“The General has confirmed all he can through his lotcaster, without raising suspicion. But he cannot dare ask the lotcaster how much we know. The General has no immediate means of communicating other than through the army.

“It is your responsibility that the General know what we want him to, and no more.”

The symaptile was assembled. Obdurate noted that the leaves in the trees appeared to glow in the sun. He had not noted this the day before, nor how loud the sparrows seemed. He sat upon the chair, his chest tight, and rapped the red wood frame. He moved the hoop to spell his name.

The response: “Greatsergeant. Where is my wife?”

“I have told her you must speak with her. She will not.”

“What did she say?”

Last night, Obdurate had imagined the response to this question from the General. Fazgood thought the response splendid, and Respiration tweaked the words to her style:

“She said, ‘Surely he has greater concerns, or soon will, when the curse is lifted.’”

The hoop thrashed. “What does she mean? Tell!”

“I do not know.”

“You are lying! I can tell you are lying!”

“She said those exact words.”

Which was the truth; Fazgood was very helpful in explaining how a conscience works. Did she speak that actual phrase? Yes, she did. Therefore, it was not a lie.

Obdurate swallowed, his mouth sticky.

But the General would not allow that easy glibness. “You know more than you tell.”

“I do not. I have told all.”

A pause, then: “You do not have to protect her. She is my wife. I love her, and disregard her mistakes.”

“I do not know what you mean.”

“What she has risked, I will ignore.”

“I do not know what you mean.”

Another pause. Heat seemed to pour from the board. The letters seemed like cinders, so much that he expected scorching to spread and set the wood alight.

Obdurate grasped the hoop. “Are you still there?”

The hoop jumped. It slid precisely. “Yes.”

The wind stirred, brushing tiny things past his eyelashes. Was the air above the board wavering with the heat?

The hoop moved in sweeps to land upon each letter, then adjusted upon it infinitesimally:

“I have work to attend to. Let them do what they may. I will be in negotiations tomorrow with the Ijakallans.”

The red frame rapped so hard it shook. The General had ended the conversation.

Obdurate rapped lightly. He looked up from the sympatile. The sunlit courtyard was already warm. Across, along the wall, bramblerose trees stood in the shadows.

The adjutant tried to distract himself, Back home, the diaphenes would be blooming now. Such a touching transluscent purple, one would think that spirits would weep such things.

The lotcaster got up from her seat and unsnapped the sympatile partition with smooth, practiced movements. She glanced at Obdurate, then quickly back to her work. Obdurate realized that though she did not know the dialogue that had taken place, his expression must be very unsettled.

He thought of saying something casual to dispel that impression, but he knew that his effort would make him seem even more nervous.

Certainly, if it weren’t for Respiration, and yes Calzjha, I would be quaking with fear.


*         *         *


Walking into the headquarters of the Scout Brigades, the Earl’s stomach grumbled and seared, as it usually did lately. It was best for many reasons to eat light when he had a plan in play. It was also best to avoid tea, syrups, powdered condiments, any cooked legume, any herbal remedies, inhaled substances of any kind, the wearing of colognes, dangling jewelry, blue eyeglasses, snug-fitting suits, passing any glass without checking reflections, and cursing the many gods who took an interest in him.

Fazgood trotted up the stairs, following Tlezjoy, whose expression was sullen and seething.

“Is your mood well?” asked the Earl.

Tlezjoy said nothing.

“Did you have a quarrel with the Inspector?”

The deputy spat. “Shut up.”

The Earl smiled to himself as he was shown down the hallway of draped alcoves. They walked to a different niche, the one at the end of the hallway. The Inspector waited, alone, his rubbing fingertips revealing his anticipation. He dismissed the deputy with a glare.

“Did you enjoy yesterday’s walk?” the Inspector asked Fazgood.

“It was very educational.”

“Good. See that you learn.”

The Inspector’s voice was sharp, and Fazgood found himself twitching to avoid an anticipated slap.

“I think,” said Mehzadapt, “ that we ought to discuss General Greatsergeant.”

“Indeed,” said the Earl.

“Tell me about how he swindled the Army.”

“He did not swindle the Army. He promised undue influence to a group of Ijkallan magicians.”

“Then tell me.”

Fazgood told the Adanikarese’s favorite method of subverting a new trade partner, but inserted “The General.” He placed General Greatsergeant in the role of the subversive, and invented the Ijkallan government as a contemplative republic (“a bunch of slow-moving dupes”).

“Secret gifts of gold and silver jewelry were made to the General. Well-made stuff. Good value. We, the Foofaloof and I, had the precious metals sold and deposited in an account for the General, who told his wife. But the adjutant found the account, and wanted in.”

The Inspector crossed his arms: “Greatsergeant could have took the money and told the magicians to scram, then had them arrested. The General would have gotten around easier if he had told the Scout Brigades. We would have protected him from magicians for the right price.”

Looking to his shoes, the Earl replied, “He…ah…he has low opinion of the brigades. He is one of those who feel you should be disbanded.”

“Then the General has spent too many years away and has lost his traditions. Let him spend more.”

“He is a paragon.”

Mehzadapt sneered. “Born into such influence! Trusted with a mission to expand the kingdom! He could become Marshall of the Army! Prime Minister!”

“His family,” said the Earl, “is such a sad tale.”

“Who knows what that is about? A melancholy in his blood. His rewards more than compensate for sad sap.”

“But further prying will enrage him more. He’s a general! And a paragon! You shouldn’t treat him so lightly!”

“He has such a low opinion of my kind, perhaps we should get acquainted.”

The Earl puffed. “You would write a letter to him? Speak with him? That would be such a mistake.”

“Are you always so nervous? My deputies tell me that you were a spymaster in the Three Cities.”

“The Xhnar family press-ganged me! I was almost murdered, more than a few times! I got out at the first opportunity.”

“The book tells that you found the Satirist’s spy network and captured his assassins.”

“Ha!” Fazgood leaned close. “Grandfar Xhnar would have you think that. He surrounded me with excellent people, then waved me aloft in public for the assassins to slay. Whoever wrote that book took Grandfar’s word.”

Mehzadapt looked at the Earl in disbelief. The Earl focused his gaze just above the Inspector’s eyes, to give the impression of directly gazed sincerity. Both men knew that the Print Guild did not publish lies. The Print Guilds received carefully-vetted approval for every book offered, from the Public Works and the Royal Family. But the Royal Family were also inscrutable, and made allowances that made no sense until years, even decades later.

The Inspector shrugged and looked Fazgood over. “Leave home and Compact, and that’s what sort of rule you get.”

Fazgood bit his tongue and waited for his words to work on the Inspector.

Mehzadapt asked questions to trip the Earl up, and so locate a lie. But having accepted the premise of the General’s corruption, and being greedy for it to be true, the Inspector had stopped examining the foundation of the tale. The Earl purposefully made mistakes in re-telling the tale, so to make the Inspector feel valuable; the inconsistencies were explained away with other lies that the Inspector found more acceptable. By the end, the Inspector was fuming and distracted.

“Would he let crime run loose?” Mehzadapt muttered. “Would he let generations of our ancestors be devoted, then say ‘Get off our doorstep. You mean nothing to us.’ Ingrate.”

Warned the Earl, “If he was ever to return and assume a role in civil society, he could –”

“If that were to happen, expect the scout brigades to be more organized, with greater respect for tradition.”


“You have shown use today. Go back to your den of traitors and wait for instructions. Return tomorrow and tell me all that you hear or see. Continue checking in with whichever deputy is posted every six hours.”

Fazgood made quick scuttle from the alcove and out of the somber headquarters, lest the inspector add to his new hardship.

“Tell me all that you hear or see.”

Merhiazadapt is changing the phrasing of his instructions to catch me in a lie. Looks like I will be sleeping early tonight. I cannot go upstairs tonight, nor can I discuss plans with the others.

His heart dipped that he would not see Respiration in the dark. In her dim-lit chamber, against the white nightdress, her skin shone like polished onyx. But, then again, Fazgood found it increasingly wearisome to leave the chamber to that young dolt soldier (a well-intending fellow, yes, but all dolts mean well).

How doltish could he be? That method of gathering numbers from the achievements of one’s life, and determining from that information…that is so simple it is gifted. Knowing that could come in very useful; it could be used to bargain with the Cacaphoness or the Xhnar, or even the Emperor, if I needed to buy my way from under a rump.

Fazgood remembered from a few nights ago, from Warren’s perspective, the quick glance of the soldier with both Respiration and Calzjha. The Earl snorted ruefully.

Something for the soldier to remember when he is ignoring his grandchildren.

No. It was no lustful tryst. Calzjha’s race didn’t countenance rampant rutting. All physical touch was meant to be soothing, harmonious and enlightening; Khuoro’s studies were still focused and confident, thanks to the ingestion of Calzjha’s blood and sweat and seed that first night.

Calzjha’s skin is always flawless. Not voluptuous either, but always of kind proportion and this is *why* I always have Calzjha stay male. I do not need that distraction!

It has been so long since I have rutted, I really do not miss it. Not that I did it well when married.

He entered Lanthornmount Square, and decided to find a beannut vendor. He made to sip at a fountain, looked around at the people and the sky, then turned his mind back to the problem at hand:

Mehzadapt has five days until the Magnateship vote. He must win that vote or he will be ruined. What can I give him? I have to tell him everything I hear or see. There needs to be a conspiracy discussed for me to see.

Then the Earl was struck with an idea.

“Gods,” laughed the Earl softly. “That solves a problem. This calls for beannuts and some soup.”

He hastened to vendors and bought lunch.

At the vendor, he noted the scout on duty that day was the one who had deftly picked the toolbag at the Malabar Flats Ferry. The Earl took great joy in forgiving the man, inviting him to chat, and challenging his fortitude to a taste of relish. After a few questions about the Inspector, the man bade the Earl well and went back to his post across the square, his mood much more hateful toward Mehzadapt.

The Earl sat at a bench and brought out his bottle of relish. It was still half-full. He tapped a drop into the soup and stirred, and quickly ate. The heat stabbed his stomach, yet filled him with resolve. The pain also made him angry, which heightened his resolve further. He contacted his familiar.

[Warren,] thought the Earl, [I am under obligation. Note me very carefully, for I must report all I hear or see to the Inspector.]

That worthy’s pity was palpable. [You poor man. What now?]

Fazgood used his pinky fingernail to pick a beannut seed from between his teeth, [I will be at the keep soon. Please tell all not to speak about the conspiracy; I cannot even risk overhearing whispers. I will help Calzjha with the afternoon speech to the contemplators.]

Warren thought, [I will draw Calzjha’s attention at once and convey your messages. Obdurate took a moment and told me of his sympatile with the general this morning. According to the captain, it went very well.]

[Was the captain telling the truth?]

[He truly believes he did well, and concealed nothing. He is nervous, though.]

The Earl chuckled, [It is good for him. Squire, do you still like playwriting?]

[Why…I suppose. We have been rather busy.]

[Sir, I need for you to imagine a scenario with dialogue.]

The Earl provided the particulars of the desired scene and released Warren until late that evening so to craft his wordwork.

Fazgood returned the soupbowl to the vendor and strolled across the square to Greatsergeant Keep. The first of the contemplators had arrived and, as usual, chatted in a noisy knot around the Foofaloof, each looking for an opportunity to step into conversation. No one noted Fazgood’s entrance into the room.

He approached Respiration. “I would like to set the Brumpf up in our room. And I would need paper, water and an inkstone.”

All were provided, and the grateful playwright was set next to the window on a flat trunk. The weasel immediately set his paw into the dish of water, flicked the excess, daubed a finger in the inkstone and set to scratching in tiny print.

Fazgood noted Warren’s thoughts, [Ah! If she says…. No! Then he would say, yes!]

From in front of the closed door, Respiration shook her head. “Such a talented retinue. What does he write?”

“You will know soon enough. Do you have the reports on the Ijkallas?”

“They are beside the bed. Still unopened.”

She sounded as annoyed as he was at Calzjha’s lack of initiative.

“Fret not, I shall help with the presentation today. How fares your morning?”

“Better now that your schedule has opened up. Contemplation is like swimming in deep-water lately.”

“Shall we?”

The Earl tucked the folio of reports under his arm. They walked to contemplations.

After a brief introduction and a chorus to show appreciation, the Foofaloof and Pehzpersist presented themselves before the crowd. Pehzpersist stepped forward and spoke:

“With your indulgence, I grant that I will speak on the economy of the Ijkallas. This subject is more to my knowledge, as the Foofaloof is educated more in matters of the spirit. He had not said as much before, because he is a kind man and did not wish to disappoint his new friends.”

The Earl opened the folio of reports and set them upon a table. He looked directly at the frowning Mezzo-Barritone of the Royal Judiciary and smiled. “I would like to elaborate on this splendid documentation.”


*         *         *


That evening, after the most relaxed dinner since their arrival, the Earl retired early, after the anthem. He brought a small dish of legume stew up to the bedroom for Warren, and mixed some of the favored sauce that came with the box from Adanikar. He entered to find the weasel surrounded by inky papers, and staring intently out the window, oblivious to his liege’s entrance. Fazgood kept quiet, and set the plate beside Warren quietly to avoid disturbing his work. The Earl lay upon the bed and slept.

Later, Calzjha entered. At the appointed time, they roused the Earl, then Calzjha and Warren sneaked upstairs with a sheaf of papers writ upon by Warren. The Earl waited a count of two hundred, then proceeded upstairs.

He opened the door and slipped into Respiration’s bedroom. Around the room, in the conspirators sat in their usual locations, Respiration at the desk, Obdurate on the bed, Calzjha beside him, Warren near the door jamb.

Respiration spoke, as if repeating words from a voice only she could hear, “There…there you are, you wretch.”

‘Yes!” said Obdurate stiffly, staring at the weasel. “We have much undue suspicion direct upon us already. Where do you go in the afternoons?”

The Earl waited for his prompt from Warren, who was playwright, director and stage manager for the production.

[“I was wandering past abodes and a-worksplaces, as is my wont. For I learn more through a-watching than do all the sages through consterned studies thereby.”]

The Earl was then reminded the degree of Warren’s love of language. He suppressed an annoyed mutter and spoke his line.

The other three conspirators looked upon him, stunned by the florid statement. Respiration sucked in her cheeks to avoid laughing.

Said Obdurate, “’I suspect vile treachery!’”

“’I think that as well,’” said Calzjha, primly yet with tense annoyance, “’for I am silly and easily swayed.’”

Respiration took a breath, which shuddered with clenched laughter. “’Out with your truth, you lousy fence. Are you to determine us to the police as your patsies? That’s a magic you will regret and regret hard.’”

“’I’m a soldier. His blood will sluice over my blade with ease.’”

Prompted Warren, [Your threats bore me, as my blade would bore through you.]

Fazgood spoke his line, and actually thought it had a good turn.

“Enough of the prattling,” said the goodwife. “Where do you go? We hired a tail, and he saw you skulking into the scout headquarters!”

The Earl followed the prompts: “I owe grevious indebtedness from fell gambling, as I have told you before. I forestall their action with assurances and small payments. Money would propel us from your society.”

Respiration glanced at Obdurate. “’What of that? Where lies his payoff?’”

From the door jamb, Warren rustled through his ink-scratched papers.

Obdurate translated the thoughts Warren projected. “’Wait…wrong pa –‘“

The soldier smartly bit his tongue to keep from speaking words which would spoil the illusion being created for the Inspector. The performers waited in the dark; Obdurate and Calzjha looked restless and concerned, but the Earl gave them a tiny wave to encourage patience. The goodwife choked down another fit of giggles.

Obdurate looked to Warren and said finally. “’Ah! Let me kill him. Who is going to miss him?’”

“’I would not,’” said Calzjha. “’For I lack any…any depth of character?! Beyond my sensual studies?!’”

The last was added with exasperation.

Respiration took another shuddering breath. “’Shut both your noise-holes! The time has past for any saline-spilling. Where is their payoff?’”

The captain said. “’The banker is giving me grief. He will not give the amount in specie.’”

“’A lowly banker? I will see to him,’” said the goodwife. “’I will crush that little weed for crossing me.’”

The Earl said, “’So I must await another evening? This is not an inconvenience. Your board and larder is more than adequate. But another day in our clutches is another day where all may be discovered, determined, or deduced.’”

Respiration mustered an authentic sneer. “’Go scuff some flagstones, thief. We have business to discuss.’”

“’Why can’t I stay?’”

“’Start scuffing, I said.’”

The Earl gathered Warren and, leaving his rustling documents for Obdurate to dispose of when he departed later, slipped out the door.

In the hallway, the weasel looked up with black marble eyes filled with hope.

[Did it satisfy, my liege?]

[It filled the requirements splendidly, squire. I can go to the Inspector and tell him all I heard and saw, and he will have to believe.]

Wareen nodded happily. [I tried to make Respiration more the boss of the conspiracy, as you instructed before I wrote.]

[Noted and noticed, squire.]

[Ah! Good! I tried to capture the essence of the other characters otherwise. I didn’t have much time.]

[It was splendid. I believe Goodwife Greatsergeant enjoyed her role.]

The Earl peered down the stairs. He began skulking down.

Warren thought, [I thought I saw Calzjha making faces.]



18 06 2014

[The Inspector is having you what?] thought Warren.

From a rickshaw, the Earl watched the bustling Meridian Bulwark Route pass.

[I have to walk the ten miles of the Secure by twenty-hour tonight. I am riding down to the Enthus Gate now to begin. Inform all that I am safe, but that I shall eat dinner as I walk.]

[I am glad of your safety, my liege. The walk will be inconvenient for this afternoon.]


[The contemplators are pressing Calzjha for details of the Ijkallas.]

The Earl grimaced. [You would think that he – she! — she would take just a moment from rubbing people to read a god-poxied army report!]


[Tell her that I will try to communicate some various hints to her as needed. Remind her to stay on what is already known about the islands. Tell her that the Ijkallans are excited about joining the Kingdom, and try to turn it into a conversation about the Kingdom.]

Before the trotting rickshaw driver, the dark brown Enthus Gate loomed. The Earl gritted his teeth and sighed.

[And tell Calzjha to read the god-poxied army reports!]

[Yes, my liege.]

The rickshaw pulled out of the wheelgrooves and onto the sidewalk. The Earl paid the man, who eyed Fazgood’s gritty, blotched hands with distaste and took the coins delicately. Ignoring the contempt, Fazgood looked to his right at Eximus Quayfort, a keep shaped like a mushroom rising from a jetty in the Quand. Before him was Enthus Gate, and to his left, with another sigh, he confronted Meridian Bulwark Route, the direction from which he came. The Route was a paved upward slope the width of four rickshaws. The entire of it was busy with carts, rickshaws and pedestrians, but would soon it would be thick with people.

The Earl trotted to the corner where the Secure ended and the entrance to the Quayfort began. He tapped it and began his walk at his usual brisk pace.

The Route’s course took it along the base of the Secure for most of its length. Every two hundred paces, a food vendor would be positioned to selling to crowds; pickleballs or shimmercake for humans and Exult, or a page of sonnets for the hungry Adactoid. The colors of the city were of the sort found in nature, or at least a very muddy nature found along a river; the people wore duns or browns or yellows or dark blue. The police wore the same maroon as maple trees in autumn. The wall itself was a glittering, granular copper.

Hrikinik had bored Fazgood with details regarding the stone which comprised the Secure . The Adanikarese were greatly jealous of the unique stone. The stone withstood strikes from catapult and Booloob screams without so much as a scratch. Yet if one managed to chip a piece, it felt light in your hand like pumice. It would stay like that for years, decades. But if one attempted to deduce the qualities of that piece through experiment or magic, even closely examining that piece, that chipped stone would collapse into dust. Examinations through proxy, such as having pathetics test and describe that sample, left them with dust.

The Adanikarese were vexed by what they considered a divine practical joke; they called the stone “God-clot.”

That brought Fazgood’s mind to his conversation with Hrikinik, and to the Temporary God seeking the Earl.

He swore to himself in several languages.

The Secure terminated at the Citadel, and beside that was the Terhane Residences. Inside the Residences was the game of jezr-ji, the soul of the Temporary God, and every poxied lotcaster in the province.

Keep alert for those banners, he thought.

The keeps along the Secure were spaced one at every quarter ri. The Earl’s knee started aching again. An ambulatory rumbled and whined past, which made the Earl scowl with jealousy at the gentility, the smartness of such travel.

[My liege, I hate to disturb you at your labor.]

[What does Calzjha want?]

[Calzjha is about to give her presentation. She is quite nervous.]

That is quite satisfying! But no, no, I have to help her! But why? It was being distracted by her testicles that got me – Blast I should have worked alone!

The Earl edged along the sidewalk around a sonorous crowd at a sonnet-stand, [Did she read?]

[She did, but she preferred that I contact you, and convey promptings.]

He bumped into a burping, reciting Adactoid and apologized. Jingling metal rang from somewhere.

[So she didn’t read very much,] Fazgood thought.

[I would doubt it, my liege. Still, I consider her caution to be sensible.]

[Very well. Tell her she should make begin with a recitation and speak slowly. Fluxion! I have to dodge!]


Along the wall, directly toward the Earl, came a throng of clamoring brown jezr-ji players. The red and yellow streamers fluttered in the breeze, caressing all around the banners as they passed.

The Earl noted the good cheer that the players instilled and, with a smile, picked his way across the rickshaw lanes to the other sidewalk. The players passed safely by.

[My liege! She has taken a question!]

The Earl choked, then gritted his teeth and walked faster. [What was her god-poxied reason for doing that?]

[Calzjha is too ready to please others: the question is “Tell us about courtship and marriage in your land.”]

[Tell her to use her own traditions as an answer. Leave out the sex changing!]

Fazgood bumped into an Exult, who squawked a protest.

“Humblest apologies!” the Earl said, and received a ruffled flap in reply.

[She is answering well,] reported Warren.

[Tell her to ask about Rahsic traditions! Then get back on her talk!]

[Yes, my liege.]

Another keep passed. Other ambulatories prompted more scowls. The Earl’s stomach growled. He considered calling out to a distant vendor and passing money and food as he walked by, but all the vendors were crowded. In his blazer pocket was his bottle of relish; he knew from experience that a little Lava-God’s-Revenge would give more life to his step and make him forget his pains.

A crowd knotted in a side courtyard. Unseen, a declaimer’s cadence rose above the crowd. A woman with steely voice cried:


“From the parapet of his besieged manse,

surrounded by the Imperial Army,

surrounded tighter by the Earl’s treacherous subjects,

so shouted the Earl:

‘Do you think you have me? Go slap yourselves!

‘’Twas your treachery brought the army to besiege!

I committed felonies within my Emperor’s tolerance!

You stole without regard!

No jail…”


Voices in the crowd joined the declaimers:

“‘…was built for me, especially not the jail meant for you!’”

The voices cheered and laughed at the Earl’s hubris.

Of course I was clever! Damn it all! I was broke and betrayed! I lost my home! What did I have left except to curse them!

More people stepped from the tight buildings onto the sidewalk, making the Earl stop suddenly and jar his knee. The sidewalk was now bustling.

Fazgood muttered, “She must be getting along well. I haven’t heard from War –“

Then he clenched his mouth shut. Zhazh will notice —

[My liege!]

Fazgood suppressed a curse to that wretched god. [Tell me.]

[“What is the history of your government?” It’s from the Mezzo-Barritone!]

[Monarchy! People understand monarchy!]

[The reports say the Ijkallas are a sort of republic!]

[Fluxion! Convey this to Calzhja! She is to say. “Enlightened thinkers set up laws to live by.”]

[Done! Next!]

The crowd was quickening, and Fazgood limped to keep pace. [“In a time beyond reckoning…”]


[“…the thinkers looked to create a society of peace and understanding. But they knew that dream…”]

The Earl struggled, his pace slowing to tiny steps. [“…required the continued striving of the populace to become closer to the perfection of the all-knowing gods.”]


[“Our Ijkallas grew in peace and plenty, and did not need the desperate intervention of our gods. Our gods have seen fit to guide you to our shores to aid us in this quest for enlightenment.”]

Fazgood waved a hand in declamation, which drew agitated glances from the maids beside him.

[All are very pleased, my liege.]

[Now! Tell Calzjha to suggest that she dance!]

[They accept the invitation!]

The Earl nodded in satisfaction, imagining the murmurings of a contented crowd. Gods, I miss politics!

The crisis in the keep passed. Calzjha performed “The Wooing of The Doe Princess”, which was always pleased an audience. Fazgood found that dance sweet and sopping and too long to finish; he was glad to avoid its performance.

He considered glumly, It is the gummy toast of Calzjha’s dances! How can persons of any accomplishment enjoy it?

Despite his knee, he reflected upon his comparison and enjoyed it.

The Earl passed keep number nineteen-or-twenty, which began the third tier of Harmonium. The route crested and flattened, and his legs were thankful. He began his walk to the Plaza of the Superb.

His stomach tweaked from hunger. The Earl made arrangements with Warren to have some beannuts and bread ready to seize when he passed by Greatsergeant Keep; the nuts would be good to eat while walking, and the bread he had plans for.

He walked past guildhouses and memoriums, noting the guildhall of the masons, whose brick latticed walls resembled a river from one angle, then as one walked, the brickpattern resembled faces of resilient and noble anonymous citizens. He sighted the keep, the twenty-fourth-or-fifth along the Secure.

Outside the keep stood Obdurate. The Earl slowed his pace enough for the adjutant to give a bag of beannuts and a large chunk of dark bread.

Obdurate confirmed that Calzjha’s performance was splendid.

“Would you permit me to walk with you?” the captain asked.

“I would enjoy the company,” said the Earl, “but it is best we were not seen chatting as friends. The lies we’ve told depend upon your public hostility towards me. We will talk tonight.”

Obdurate nodded and bade the Earl an affected, gruff farewell. The timing of such curtness was well. Fazgood spied across the square a short, vulpine deputy, the one who mocked him after being Obligated, watching the soldier’s departure with interest.

The Earl remembered the Inspector’s instructions to register with whichever deputy was observing the square. He proceeded at a diagonal path through the crowd toward the brigade scout. Fazgood waved to the deputy.

The deputy turned his back to Fazgood, as if noting a detail in a demon’s face within Lanthornmount mosaic. Suspecting some mischief, the Earl rummaged in the bag and found a good, flat beannut the size of his thumb-knuckle.

Called the Earl, “Scout Deputy! Hello!”

The deputy was very plainly ignoring him. The Earl rolled the beannut around in his right palm. Fazgood had to keep walking or violate his obligation to Merhiazadapt, and decay even more. He edged one foot ahead of the other, taking the tiniest steps.

“Deputy…Tlezjoy! Is that not your name?”

The deputy turned and walked away to the east wall of the Square, from where Fazgood had come. Fazgood could not reverse direction without breaking his obligation; the deputy doubtless knew this, for he had mocked the Earl as those commands had been made.

The Earl snarled at the cruelty. He sought an opening in the crowd. His hand whipped. The beannut flew through the crowd and struck Tlezjoy on the base of his neck.

Forgetting himself, the deputy wheeled around. His hand fished within his collar. It found the beannut and he looked around in rage.

He saw the Earl through the crowd, thirty paces away.

Fazgood put on an affable smile and waved the bag of beannuts. “I register!”

The deputy pressed through the genteel crowd with apologies muttered through his teeth. He stood in the Earl’s path. Fazgood made his steps even smaller.

“I register,” The Earl slumped into Pehzpersist’s meekness again. “Would you like a beannut?”

The deputy made to smack the bag from Fazgood’s hand. Fazgood snatched it out of his reach. Fazgood continued tiny steps to within Tlezjoy’s breath. They stood, Fazgood’s nose to Tlezjoy’s chin. Fazgood stopped walking.

Said the Earl, “To impede someone who is obligated from fulfilling that obligation is considered unregulated torture. For a scout, that is low treason. Will you call the policeman on the corner, or will I?”

“You have that wrong, aspirant. I do what I may.”

“Ah! I believe you have that wrong, deputy. Please step aside.”

“You would call the policeman? I know enough of your situation that you would want to stay out of the light, bunglerpox.”

“Know enough”. The Inspector keeps his deputies ignorant. Of course he does.

Said the Earl, “I believe your boss would become very upset about any attention drawn to me.”

They stood button against button. Fazgood looked past Tlezjoy’s shoulder. Both of them saw a policeman waving through pedestrians some twenty paces away. The Earl opened his mouth and took a breath. The deputy knew a forthcoming cry of distress when he saw it, and stepped aside.

“It is well!” Tlezjoy grinned. “I meant only to joke!”

Such as it is with bullies. But if there were no crowd, he would have tried to thrash me.

Said the Earl, “One would not think you as a man of humor. You are dead of expression, and I must confess, intimidating. If you will excuse me, I must continue.”

Fazgood proceeded to walk slowly, chin held high, at a slow pace. The deputy joined his walk.

“Did you throw that beannut?”


Tlezjoy looked back to where he had stood when the nut had struck him. “That was a sharp throw. Through that crowd!”


He waited for a gap, then whipped a nut. It arced through the pedestrians and struck the policeman’s hat.

The policeman turned around. With practiced chicanery, both the Earl and the deputy began walking and feigning a conversation. Seeing nobody through the crowd, and not seeing the projectile on the ground, the policeman continued on his way.

Tlezjoy’s eyes narrowed to a brute jealousy. “How can you throw so well?”

“A knack from when I was little. I spent my youth in the wilderness.”

“Ah,” said the deputy. He became thoughtful, as if reminded of something.

“It is in the wrist,” Fazgood showed how his wrist whipped. “Like this. It is not difficult.”

The deputy looked at the hand, but did not emulate. The Earl knew the deputy would try later, when there was no one to see his mistakes.

“Would you walk?” the Earl asked.

“No. I stay here. Off with you, bunglerpox.”

“Then hold to the wall, good deputy. I was about to spread some relish on some bread. But if you’ve no interest in it, that is well.”

“That ghastly stuff!” the deputy walked alongside. “It’s still in my nose from last night!”

The Earl was struck with an idea.

Back in Adanikar, Hrikinik used soul distillations as a party trick. The distillations from maniacs would be slipped into the food of those attending sophisticates, and those who ate would be inflamed with passions or rages. Hrikinik’s parties sometimes ended with the marble floors covered with bodies; whether those bodies were rutting or bleeding made no difference to that eternally bored and callous Prince.

The Earl tucked the bag under his arm, and broke the bread. He gave half to the deputy, then brought out the bottle. He tapped a tiny amount of the viscid yellow stuff on each of their pieces.

Fazgood gestured to a nearby fountain, which they approached. “Note this: the trick is to let your mouth and throat dry through deep breaths, then let it slide down quick.”

The Earl chewed and swallowed. The scorching and scalding scraped down to his stomach. He felt a flush of heat, and the pain in his knee ebbed. He puffed and panted, and the heat ebbed.

The deputy hesitated. “I am not eating that.”

Do I remember how Hrikinik prompted? Yes!

“Your Inspector did so. He said he was the only scout tough enough to do so.”

“How did he do?”

“Gasped and choked, but he took it.”

Tlezjoy grunted at that challenge. He took the proffered bread, took some breaths, then popped it into his mouth. His eyes bulged. He ducked to the fountain.

“Do not drink! You will make it worse! Just let it ebb!”

The deputy choked. “Ugh! But…I…believe it…not as bad…as expecte-e-ed.”

This last came out as such a strangled squeak, the Earl almost laughed.

The man began sniffing, as his nose had started running freely. Sweat popped upon his brow. He grasped his stomach as the bread struck it, but made that he was adjusting the waist of his pants.

Now what would Hrikinik say? “You learn well!”

The Earl slapped the man’s shoulder. “The Inspector underestimated you! But there must be so few times that he is so rude.”

The deputy started, and his face reddened. Fazgood knew what stirred him: the man was under the influence of Fazgood’s hatred of Mehzadapt. At Fazgood’s mentioning the Inspector, the slights Mehzadapt had inflicted upon Tlezjoy from months gone by were now racing through the deputy’s mind.

But his effect would only stay for a few days, with a dose so small. Only I would be permanently affected by a small dose.

The deputy’s eyes narrowed. “People in charge sneer. That is how things are.”

“Does he sneer?”

“He yowls and glares like a wet cat! ‘Keep your council.’ ‘Mind your behavior.’ He gives you a favor and never lets you forget.”

Fazgood nodded with sympathy. “I am sorry I mentioned the tyrant. But do tell him I send my regards.”

Deputy Tlezjoy snapped. “ Send him your own regards! He is in the Headquarters back in the plaza!”

“I am sorry,” said the Earl meekly. “May all be well.”

Fazgood walked away. The deputy stood with grim face and clenched knuckles, casting glowers back to the east, where the Inspector stayed at headquarters.

Ah. It would seem I owe Hrikinik for more than just the ability to smuggle myself.

He quickly considered what had transpired with the deputy:

Did he see the captain waiting with the refreshments? That would not do. The timing was too perfect, and no messenger went into the keep to tell the captain of my impending arrival in the square. The deputies strike me as cruel wretches, but not as fools.

If Mehzadapt asks, I hired a messenger to meet the captain at the keep. That may satisfy.

He walked from the square along the Route, the fire in his stomach causing the pain in his thighs to withdraw. He walked over the breambridges, bridges of infinite sturdiness yet balanced that a single tug on a chain would withdraw them, and he contemplated the pools beneath as he passed over. The shadows drew long across the open lawns. The traffic dwindled to few pedestrians and rickshaws. His thighs and knee began aching again, his aches causing a slow recitation of profanity, but in all he was proud he could still walk such a distance with little warning. The Earl finished the beannuts and licked coarse sea-salt from sweaty fingers.

Ahead was the rose-colored wall of the Terhane Residences.

Should I drop by the Birqmuir embassy and present myself? 

He chuckled at that. He had not rejected the nobility, the touch of godliness, that the Emperor had bestowed upon him. However, a nobleman who a decade ago had tried to start criminal organizations, almost helped start a civil war, then run off without appointing a steward would probably not be welcome.

He walked to where the brown wall joined the rose-colored wall and without flourish touched that corner. He walked back to the route and looked around for a rickshaw.

[Warren,] thought the Earl, [I am done and it is early still. I come home to nap.]

[My liege, find a rickshaw. I imagine you could not walk another step.]

[I would if I have to, squire. Thankfully, I do not.]

Metal jangled. He looked up.

The Royal Cumulid loomed overhead, half-as-large as a keep, casting a deep shadow over the wall. From the huge, fluffy body cascaded long streamers. Shadows of men spiked the top of the great, floating citizen; all of the men jangled metal bells. Around the gliding mass, the Cumulid’s attendant breezes squirmed and flitted, lofting a flock of cackling, flapping Exults.

The streamers writhed down in a path as wide as Lanthornmount Square. They slowly bore down the Route toward him.


He swore viciously all the way back down the Route, the Cumulid drifting happily behind.

Then came the thunder for the sixteenth-hour rain.


*         *        *


From the doorway of Greatsergeant Keep, the conspirators watched the Cumulid drift overhead. In the sheets of rain, the waving streamers waved beneath like a moving copse of young ablewood trees, filling an eighth of the square. Children dashed in and out of the rain and cloth, cheering the lotcasters high above who were huddled under parasols on the Cumulid’s back.

In the foyer on the stairs, Fazgood sat drenched and gasping for breath. Beside him sat Calzjha, who cooed with sympathy over the Earl’s horrid durance. Such was Fazgood’s exhaustion that he had could only wheeze angrily and thrash a wet hand at that show of pity.

“Let me adjust your knee,” said the helpful associate.

“That would sting,” the Earl panted.

“What is that on your cheek?” asked Calzjha.

“Nothing! You would distract me so you can wrench my knee!”

Obdurate turned to them, mindful of the servants. “They are quite determined to have everyone in jezr-ji. The longer they go without finding someone who knows answers, the more demanding they will be.”

Staring out the door, Respiration said, “Soon they would want organized events, where all will be required. They may well just have the city line up and touch the ribbons and interrogate that way.”

A maid watched from the top of the stairs. Fazgood looked to her, and saw tight anger and suspicion. Calzjha wrenched the knee with a loud crack! The Earl yowled.

Calzjha said, “Does it not feel better?”

“But for the sharp pain, it would!”

“Get out of that wet blazer!”

Past the figure of Respiration in the doorway, the cascade was lit by the purpling dusk. She was still and silent. Obdurate walked to her side. Their postures were stiff and straight, like those of the condemned on the dock awaiting the pyre.

The Earl said to them, “Another day has ended just as it should end. All one can do is feed and rest and prepare for the next.”

None seemed consoled by the obvious, though.

“I would clean up and go upstairs to rest.”

With a groan, the Earl rose and trudged upstairs. He passed the grim maid, and went to his room for fresh clothing. Warren snored on the bundle of cloth he had come to use as a bed. Fazgood stepped lightly around his dozing compatriot and gathered his goods. He walked back down the stairs. The maid had left to prepare the public room for the next morning. The Earl shuffled to the washroom and past the desultory group.

She followed the Earl.

“How fare your legs?” she asked tersely.

“A bit achy, but still attached.”

“Your complexion clears, I think.”

“Does it?” He looked at his hands. “Splendid!”

She whispered close. “You would have more to tell us, I think.”

“No, you think wrong,” said he.

“That inspector knew you at the door day-before-yesterday. And you said last night that he had been a smug ape as a child. You say his name as if it scalds your tongue.”

“How much camle-zre did you drink?”

“It is good that I drank as much as I did,” she growled, “otherwise I would think you had foul history with him.”

“I swear that I do not know what you speak of. Tired, tainted ears hear wrong.”

“There is nothing wrong with my ears,” Respiration declared.

Fazgood looked into her eyes, and saw she would not be dissuaded. He looked around the dark hallway, behind her to the bedchamber. “How did you of all people end in this situation?”

“Men with bottles of spirits just seem to complete an evening.”

“No. How did you end in this situation? With the Greatsergeants.”

“I thought I could save a man from his family’s fate. Imagine my surprise. How did you? There was the whole world from which to choose. How did you end here?”

He shrugged. “Fled the city, went upon a quest, helped kill an Abomination, tried to start criminal brotherhoods, was duped into a civil war, tricked a family of wizards into ransoming their castle, angered some gods –“

“I’ll read the book,” Respiration interrupted. “Your shrug is performed as well as a citizen. But I assume you refer to gods in grace with Enthus?”

“Indeed. My customarian would allow me no other.”

“That is good. I have enough risk of profaning my ears by speaking with you.”

The Earl swallowed a laugh. “Perhaps I should carry myself away then.”

“You should. You are gritty, and need a good wash.”

“Good lady,” the Earl smiled. “You have described my essence.”

Down the stairs, laughter echoed against the stone. It separated and trailed into Calzjha’s musical notes and a guffaw barely recognizable as Obdurate. Both Fazgood and Respiration turned to the sound with curiosity.

Fazgood noted the good lady’s expression. “Has Calzjha’s…assistance gone well?”

She was distracted. “Yes. Your associate is so disarming and…candid. It puts one at ease. But you must know that intimately.”

“No. Truly.”

“That is surprising. In your associate’s current…guise, it is supposed men would adore someone so exotic.”

“My associate knows very little of the world, and has very little sense.”

Said Respiration, “Most men would find that appealing as well.”

“What of your captain? He is enthusiastic.”

She noted that change of subject, then her expression warmed. “Yes. He is.”

The Earl laughed.

Respiration’s mouth opened in amused shock. She struck Fazgood’s arm. “He is enthusiastic in all things. He is curious about the world, and loves much.”

“He seems awkward.”

“The army does not tolerate awkwardness. He simply is curious about the world and cannot wait –“

More laughter. Both Fazgood and Respiration turned, their expressions pinched.

“I shall speak with you later,” Respiration walked to the stairs.

“Yes,” Fazgood stepped to follow, then seeing the situation would be well modulated by the good lady’s presence, he turned back to his room. He did take a glance back to watch Respiration’s back as she descended the stairs. She was strong and handsome.

It was much later that evening, when all had gone to bed and risen again, and all had set aside their deceptions of the day, that they whispered freely in the hot, close dark of Respiration’s bedroom. All events of the day were shared, except Fazgood’s conversation with the deputy. Calzjha was congratulated for her deft performance, though all suspected the Mezzo-Barritone seemed dissatisfied with the answer he received. Fazgood swore to Calzjha his aid in developing more convincing lies for the next contemplation.

No one needed to speak of the jezr-ji. It would need only a few of the contemplators, or a few of the customary class to be touched by those streamers, and the Temporary God would know of two strangers with a animal of unusually conscious demeanor.

All sipped their drinks. They found that a sip of caml-zre made a following sip of tziembroask more palatable.

“I do wonder,” said Calzjha, “what the general is thinking.”

Said the Earl, “It does not matter what he thinks. It only matters what options we leave him. For example: tomorrow’s sympatile.”

Respiration sighed with dread. “Yes.”

“You will not go.”

All were surprised.

The Earl elaborated, “Obdurate will tell the General that Respiration refuses the General’s request.”

The adjutant laughed with disbelief. “No one says ‘no’ to General Greatsergeant.”

“I must have powerful confidence to disabuse him so,” the goodwife said.

The Earl smiled at her deduction and nodded. “The adjutant will have overheard the Foofaloof saying that the lifting of the curse is at hand.”

Even Warren at the door turned at that raising of the stakes.

Calzjha gaped. “What would he do?”

Obdurate put his arm around Respiration. The weight of that dusk’s jezr-ji bore upon them more.

Fazgood found cold in the pit of his stomach and swallowed the remainder of his tziembroask. “Are we certain that the General has no means of communicating secretly to another in the city?”

Obdurate shook his head. “There is no means of communicating other than through official dispatch, and those take days to be carried by instructed breeze. Weeks by ship.”

“He has no other sympatile at hand? No spirits at his call?”

Respiration looked to the Earl closely. “If he had such means, he would have boasted to me long ago.”

“Then we begin. Remember: you will be free, Respiration. Obdurate, you will have your lady. The kingdom will be safe.”

The referenced lady thought aloud. “We must all improvise as Calzjha had.”

“Before a greater audience,” said the adjutant. “but for how long?”

Not much longer, thought the Earl.


11 06 2014

In the morning at the barracks, Obdurate awoke early in a wonderful languor. His exercise in the yard was sharp yet relaxed. The adjutant charged to work. His first task was to thrust a note to a messenger and commanded it go to the Terhane Residences.

The note:

    A confidential message must be sent to General Greatsergeant immediately. I am sole entrusted with its conveyance. Also, are lotcasters now allowed to leave the residences for job-related tasks? I would not ask, but I have from a reliable source that the Scout Brigade lotcaster was seen last night in the Foreign Due.


He knew response would be swift. Obdurate knew his reputation: Even-tempered, so serious Army Adjutant-Captain Obdurate Childteacher never asked for help and never turned away someone in need. A pleasant, quiet, serious sort with his head always over his desk, but always forgiving of honest error. The army representatives in the College would believe him without question, and scramble to inquire.

The answer returned by the same messenger child; the girl told him an appointment time for a sympatile session at mid-day, and a polite statement that the lotcasters were still restricted.

He stepped from his office and caught a rickshaw to the Plaza. The jingle of a jezr-ji banner caused him to peer, but the lotcaster ran on the far side of the street in the opposite direction, red ribbons streaming far away. Obdurate’s mind wandered to the night before. His newly-tuned nerves kept doubt far from his heart.

At a quarter-hour before the session, he arrived at the courtyard in front of the Terhane Residences. The first scattering of tiny leaves gusted across the small, rose-quartz plaza. Over the wall to his left the bowl of the great Royal Citadel, to his right the simple, rippled roofs of the quarters housing foreign ambassadors; Birqmuir’s ambassador resided in the large ivy-covered one in the center. Beyond those, fat in the striated sky, the cumuloid glode, pearly fins open and sphincter-funnels barely visible in the billows of cloud-like disguise.

Within the courtyard, the army lotcaster stood waiting, her eyes distant and breathing deep, already preparing the trance to facilitate communication. The thin, lacquered case of a portable sympatile table slung over her right shoulder. Obdurate and the lotcaster nodded to each other, and they waited until the proper moment, when the lotcaster felt moved to begin.

In smooth, sharp movements, the sides of the case detached lengthwise and legs dropped into place to create seats. The middle of the case was turned sideways, and legs dropped to form a central table.

A frame as for a puppet theater was folded up at mid-table and snapped into dovetailed slots. One side of the partitioned table-top slid away to reveal the layer of white inscribed in black with letters of the Rahsic Unified alphabet and simple words; this was common to all sympatile. This table had a sympathetic twin; the same tree supplied the wood for both, the same vein of copper supplied the metal, the shape and arrangement of the letters and words was unique to the two sets. The twin table accompanied the General wherever he shipped, and behind which the General sat at that moment.

The table cover slipped upright into the mid-table frame to form a partition, leaving a thin gap at its bottom. Obdurate sat at the side with the white tiles. The lotcaster sat at the opposite side, her gaze hidden from the messages to be conveyed in the tray of tiles.

The two sat. She pushed a thin copper rod under the partition. The rod was tipped with a hoop of red glass. The hoop stopped in the blank space at the center of the words and letters. Obdurate heard the lotcaster humming a deep and sonorous tune, the tone descending lower and lower, until her voice began to croak.

Obdurate’s seat tingled, as if someone else was infringing upon him to move over.

The lotcaster rapped the tray.

Obdurate drew his finger upon the hoop and guided it to the letters to spell. The tiny hexagons and triangles flipped along his finger’s path, leaving a trail of red. He knew at that moment, weeks away by sail, the General sat at the twin of this sympatile device, and watched as letters traced across the twin’s face.

Obdurate spelled “Childteacher.” He tapped the frame to signify his completion.

The hoop slid across and spelled in bold, strong strokes. “Greatsergeant.”

The adjutant gritted his teeth. A chill drifted up his veins. He wrote:

“Wife cuckolds.”

He waited.

The hoop shifted, and within the slow, steady red hoop. “Impossible.”

His heart pounded. “It is certain.”

The conversation proceeded:


“Man says to be from Ijkalla. Heard man say he is magician.”

Cold panic sluice through Obdurate’s stomach.

“Perhaps I am wrong,” the adjutant wrote, aware of his weakening, wanting all of this to be over, to be in his office coordinating numbers, wiser and wiling to live a life of routine lunches and shrugs.

The hoop remained still. The General’s presence burned in the air, as if he stood over Obdurate’s shoulder. When Obdurate blinked, he saw Greatsergeant’s thick-browed and piercing eyes, his engraved smile. The adjutant felt the slamming of the General’s shoulder claps. These impressions were part of working with the sympatile; some eight weeks voyage away, approximately south-by-southwest, the General could sense Obdurate’s presence.

In slow and deliberate letters, came this: “There is more. Tell.”

What am I to do? What did the Earl say to do?

“Admit truth to hide a lie.” How?

He remembered the night before, watching naked, newly-breasted Calzjha kneading Respiration’s feet.

The lie seized him, and Obdurate wrote. “Man is not from Ijkalla. Mysterious. Claims to be magician. There is affection.”

Oddly, relief spilled over him. Respiration and Calzjha were fond of each other, even when a man Calzjha chatted with Respiration as if they were fellow students of a esoteric science. And he did know that Calzjha was as not from Ijkalla, to say nothing of having ri of exotica within.

“Who of all thinks as you?” wrote the General.

“All admire your wife. I could tell none.”

“Sensible boy.”

Anger flashed at the familiar contempt. His finger jabbed the hoop:

“More. Heard stranger tell wife he will break curse on keep.”

As soon as he wrote the words, he felt sweat prickle like hot needles on his brow and limbs.

Steady sliding: “What does he mean?”

Throw ignorance and questions.

“I do not know.”

The heat became a boiling. Obdurate suspected, strangely, that the heat was not his own.

Is the General…afraid?

The adjutant felt a shift in the General; a withdrawing into contemplation. Obdurate resisted a rising hope.

A lighter touch to the hoop now: “Tell her of my regard. Bring her tomorrow so that we may speak. The same time. Done.”

It took all of Obdurate’s will to keep his fear at bay. “I will. Done.”

Obdurate made arrangement with the lotcaster for another session the next day. He bade good-to-all and departed, heavy with worry.

How am I to have Respiration subjected to this? What are we going to do?

What spying could the General receive to determine my lies? Messages by ship would take weeks to be received. A magician or Cumuloid could compel a breeze to take a message, but that would take days to get to the Ijkallas. Would the General trust a magician to send a risky message through the spirits?

At the end of the hall, before the sunlit glass of the door, he paused and took a breath. He walked through the courtyard, still bent with thought.

Obdurate considered. No. I do not think the General would delegate the most vital task of his life. Nor would he risk exposure by entrusting himself under the scrutiny of a lotcaster or magician. They could uncover the deeper secret, and he knows that.

He looks to worm the truth from his wife! Find inconsistencies in our stories!

He walked out the rosebrick and quartz gate and down the latticed brickwork walk to the Aortid Boulevard.

A thought! The General could send a dispatch from the Ijkallas for public consumption, in seeming innocence, that would put to a lie all of the Earl’s fancies of Ijkalla (the Foofaloof? What sort of name is that?).

But…an exposed and imprisoned Foofaloof might tell of the Greatsergeant curse to any who would listen.

The General is stalemated.

This realization gave cause for a moment’s relief. At least the next few days were safe. His insides still felt like ice.

Is this how the Mad Earl spends his life? Delays and respites? The constant spinning of confusions? A few days’ safety per effort? The book says as much.

He felt a fool for even thinking it, but he had to: The book said nothing about being nauseous.


*         *         *


The thick velvet drape pulled back and Deputy Tlezjoy leaned his head into the alcove. “Inspector, someone managed to drag their gritty skin in to see you.”

The Inspector looked up from his dictation, and glared at the familiarity. “Bring him.”

Mehzadapt waved the clerk out of the alcove. The man scurried out as Fazgood slipped in, holding his hat and shoulders hunched. The Earl’s neck and cheeks had the slightest gray dinge; the beginning of Bungler Pox, the physical ruin resulting from disobeying an Obligation.

“Sit,” said the Inspector. “Let’s see your hands.”

Fazgood put his hat on the table and held out his hands palm down. Red blemishes spidered under his skin, two on the back of his right hand, one on the back of his left.

Mehzadapt slapped Fazgood across the face.

The Earl cried out and held his cheek.

A being who is struck shows many things; dismay, then whatever rage or fear is in his heart. The Inspector saw surprise, then a white-hot rage, which was quickly – expertly – caught. The Earl’s eyes showed a whipped dog biding his time, the lesser in life’s circumstance, waiting for a back to turn.

Mehzadapt pointed. “That is going to bruise more than a little, because you decided to have will.”

“What was I to do?” the Earl muttered. “The paragon was there! Am I to refuse a paragon in the middle of the Malibar Ferry?”

“You would sneak from the keep, and stay to my demand, Fazgood.”

Then the Inspector took out a handkerchief and made a show of wiping his hand. “You have dissembled from the Ijkallas to Harmonium. According to some book, you steal entire castles or some such. Yet your nerves go cold on that dock. Perhaps I should just throw you to the police.”

“You said we had struck a deal!”

“Deal? I can cancel the terms anytime I see fit.”

“That would repay you poorly. At this moment, all the paragon and the captain thinks is that I went whoring. If I have deputies around me, Goodwife Greatsergeant will know something is happening. They may do something hasty. That is why I went with them.”

“Now you answer that you look after my interests!” Mehzadapt sneered. “Where could the goodwife and captain hide?”

Fazgood leaned close. “They could themselves go to the police and hope for mercy. That would leave me and that fool I am teamed with on the Royal Road.”

And me with nothing, and ill-will for not turning them in last night. No magnateship, and an investigation from the inspectors.

He put away his handkerchief, his brow tight with contemplation. “So where lay their natures?”

“I spent half the night soothing them, so that they did not think you were on to them.”

“So you did not tell them anything of our meeting.”

“I told the Goodwife that scouts do not like citizen aspirants to gamble in the Foreign Due. She knows I am hard up for money, so she believed me. It was all I could do to assure her. She and the adjutant are gathering money to send us on our way.”

“Did you say anything of the deputies you saw in the Bellflowers? Did you describe any of them to the paragon?”

The Earl looked confused. “I told her that your deputies cornered me and you much abused me. Was I wrong?”

The Inspector’s brow tightened again, He probably let slip about Reedtickle.

“How much money?”

Fazgood told him a figure.

“That is cheap.”

“If you make it too dear, they go looking for help.”

Mehzadapt shook his head. “You have such leverage on them. Why not tell Goodwife Greatsergeant ‘shut up’ and ‘I’m for whores?’”

“I’m going to stand on a public dock and refuse a paragon? She hosts contemplations, and I have to go to customary. I can’t run about doing anything I like. I have to play it out within my role.”

“Yes, your role. What of your ‘foofaloof’?”

“The Foofaloof is enjoying being in charge. I do not trust the Foofaloof.”

The Inspector chuckled. “You always did follow heedlessly as a child. Do you remember?”

The Earl stilled, and became watchful.

“I remember faces,” Fazgood said. “Some names and streets. Beyond that, I lived a life.”

“What a life you have lived that you forget how your mentors died, Earl Fazgood.”

“I remember this city killed them over some quarrel. I remember that I am forever an exile… That is memory enough.”

Mehzadapt examined the bitterness in Fazgood’s voice, and how the Earl caught himself before he became too talkative. Better change the subject.

The Inspector clapped his meaty hands together. “You met our lotcaster. The Booloob who gave your lungs fits? I had a long session with Reedtickle last night. Not one aspect of your tale could be confirmed by lotcasting.”

Tlezjoy parted the drape. Fazgood became wary, the Inspector noted.

Mehzadapt said, “Tell Inspector Akekek that I have our visitor.”

After Tlezjoy departed, Mehzadapt instructed the Earl: “You will relate to Inspector Akekek everything you have told me. You will not tell any scout the names of your conspirators.”

The Inspector spoke the few words necessary to seal the commands and bind them to Fazgood’s fate.

Tlezjoy pushed aside the drape to allow Inspector Akekek her entrance. No introductions were made.

Akekek kept her plughat on her sleek brown crest. “Inform me.”

Mehzadapt set aside her deliberate rudeness. “I referred to an investigation last night. This investigation is delicate. The subject of the investigation concerns embezzlement in the military. Its conspiracy reaches to the highest ranks. I will not discuss the details until all parties are leveraged, and this man is obligated to me not to reveal details. When the conspirators are under control of the Brigades, you will know all.”

Fazgood related the tale told of the previous evening, omitting names, keeping details vague. He omitted Calzjha completely.

Akekek clucked deep in her throat. “The military, you say?”

“Yes, Inspector,” said Fazgood.

Mehzadapt flicked a finger. “Wait down the hall at the corner.”

Fazgood stepped backward out of the alcove and dropped the velvet back into place.

Akekek looked to Mehzadapt. Her hackles rose.

“What is this theater?” she sneered. “I saw his skin: this man is grit and spots. He will say anything you demand.”

Mehzadapt shrugged. “Believe him or do not believe him. All I ask is the full ten days. I will honor all who supported my investigation.”

“The ten days are now six days, Mehzadapt.”

“Six days, yes. Stop any hasty vote that Inspector Mikdoktik demands, and I will insure that you share in the bounty of this haul.”

“What would you with this ‘haul’? It is high treason to extort the army exchequer for a percentage of their embezzlement.”

“I would leverage any minor conspirators for favor in the future; I would insure they were kept from being revealed. The more impressive conspirators I would give the courts.”

The Exult nodded. “How impressive would those ones be?”

“Inspector, your fledglings have heard of them.”

Akekek assessed Mehzadapt’s confident demeanor.

She giggled. “I agree. I invest six days’ patience into this ‘haul’ of yours.”

“There is a haul. It will be had.”

The Exult took her leave. Deputy Tlezjoy peeked in and Merhizadapt crooked a finger to have Fazgood sent in.

The Earl entered and sat. The cramped alcove forced him close to Mehzadapt; there was a tension in Fazgood’s seating as he expected another slap. The purpling bruise was rising on his cheek in front of his left ear. The Inspector slapped his arm around the Earl’s shoulders.

Mehzadapt growled. “There is some discord in Greatsergeant Keep. Last night, the lotcaster discerned that much. And that you and the goodwife and the soldier are conspiring. You have something very important over the General. But no money has changed hands.

“And you have never, ever stepped foot on the Ijkallas. You should explain why the lotcaster found this to be so.”

The Earl’s countenance became grim. He wiped a hand before his face, and gazed at the gray flakes.

He said, “The General leveraged his Army magician to conceal my partner and I from discernment. You know they conceal the movements of whole fleets from magical discernment. To conceal two people is nothing.”

“Ah,” said the Inspector. “But why?”

“We are on the run from the Adanikarese. As long as we stayed by the General, the Adanikarese couldn’t find us.”

The Inspector raised an eyebrow. “So you are aiding high treason, for leveraging the magician.”

“Yes-s-s-s,” Fazgood stared at the table.

Mehzadapt sneered. “You are no longer required to stay with the deputies. Check in with me every six hours. At night, do so by reporting to whoever of my deputies is in Lanthornmount Square.

“Two more items,” said the Inspector. “First: walk the length of the Triumph. Complete the task before tonight’s twentieth hour. Do so without interruption or pause for rest. Do so without aid from any person or device. When your legs ache, remember I can have you do worse. Go.”

He drove home the point by speaking the enchantment into the Earl’s ear. Fazgood gritted his teeth, but said nothing.

The Inspector shoved. “Get out of here. You smell like ashes.”

Tlezjoy had heard, and parted the drape with a vulpine smile. “There is not enough water to wash the Bungler away. Off with you.”

The Earl rose, so angry that he panted. “The second item. What is the second item?”

“You would do best to avoid those fellows charging around with those red and yellow banners. Tell your co-conspirators the same.”

“What?” Fazgood’s eyes seemed to search for reason. “Why?”

“Just do so. That is an order, and you are obligated.”

The Inspector spoke the few words necessary to seal the commands upon Fazgood.

Under his Obligation, Fazgood stalked away.

The deputy jibed. “Rattle those bones quick! You’ll be pink again by sun-up!”

The Inspector shook his head. The Fiery Comet! The Mad Earl! Could he be truly this pathetic? If he falls so easily to me, why should I need Reedtickle!



4 06 2014

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

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

Her presence pressed all talk on the boat to murmurs.

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

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

The weasel shrieked and banged open the lid.

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

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

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

“Where is he?” asked Respiration.

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

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

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

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

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

[I haven’t felt better in months.]

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

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

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

[I will understand if you do not.]

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You must be ashamed, aspirant!”

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

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

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

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

The deputies sneered.

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

She stood aside to allow the ferry throng to exit.

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

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

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

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

His right foot stepped onto the ferry.

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

The foot, however, did not withdraw.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Steady, my liege.]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Calzjha flushed and took the bag in her free hand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not with me beside you.”

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

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

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

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

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

Rattle, flick, thump.

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

Rattle, flick, thump.

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

The rattling stopped.

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

Flick, thump.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Earl sighed, [Chief Litigator.]

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

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

[You…you have changed plans? ]

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

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

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

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

Both were baffled.

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

Warren sagged into the cloth. [Fluxion.]

Calzjha hissed in astonishment.

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

[Of course he is behind this!]

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

“Yes, and he sends his regards.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Steady your nerve, young lady.”

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

“What are you about?”

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

“I must have been drinking.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Only those two options!”

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

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

“Splendid! We are agreed that I am far better restored.”

“We knew nothing of murder.”

“You are not doing it.”

“You are no assassin.”

Midnight’s arrival was appreciated by all of the conspirators. Through stealth and familiar routes, all of the parties assembled under dark in the master bedroom. A white lanternette had been retrieved from the hidden room, was lit and placed upon the floor. The

Earl brought a length of blue cloth, which he placed at the bottom of the door to keep light from showing under it. Wrapped within it was the second bottle of caml-zre. Through the secret door crept Obdurate, who brought with him the tziembroask jug and the remainder of the first bottle of caml-zre, and for this was roundly commended by a certain other party. Warren was posted at the door hinge, and beside a gap in the placed blanket, to listen for the maids. Respiration opened and unfolded an ablewood vanity, and set five porcelain tumblers upon its counter. The Earl’s surprise caught her notice.

She explained. “Obdurate bought these this afternoon.”

Obdurate’s expression was restless and nauseated. “Yes! About that! Fazgood, you must leave Harmonium. Every lotcaster in the city is searching for you, and they already know so much. Please escape.”


Obdurate described his infiltration of the Terhane Residences, and his eavesdropping upon the lotcasters.

A curt nod from Fazgood. “Sharp work. You told me something that will preserve us all; tomorrow we avoid these lotcasters running around.”

Surprise lit the adjutant’s face.

“But,” added the Earl, and rubbed his aching knee. “in all things there is a time to flee. We have not reached that time. You are still bound to that fiend General. I am bound to the Inspector. There is a way out for both you and I.”

He continued. “You suggest that I am here through selfishness. I disagree.”

His expression tightened at the memory. “The scouts had cornered me over my dinner at a conference house. Before me was a porcelain plate, a bottle, even the sharp edge of the crab shell at hand. I could have used any to aid an escape.”

A glance at Calzjha. “I could even have killed one of them.”

Calzjha and Warren both noted the remark and stiffened.

The Earl continued. “I might have escaped the room, perhaps have escaped the Due and even Harmonium.”

Calzjha muttered. “That would have left me captured and interrogated.”

Realization seeped into Respiration, and her lover also cast his eyes down.

She opened the bottle of tziembroask. “No amount of resolve from Calzjha would withstand that scrutiny. We would be found out.”

“Indeed,” said the soldier. “All would have been lost.”

She poured cups of tziembroask. She offered them. “I have tried this before, many years ago.”

Calzjha snorted. “It is not to my taste. I will enjoy a little caml-zre.”

“Would…your litigator care for one?”


[I thank you, Goodwife. I would appreciate some caml-zre with water.]

Obdurate gave a hopeful look and accepted his tziembroask. “Tziembroask is so bitter, but in ‘The Nimblest Man’, it is written you make concoctions with this liquor. I had thought that must brighten its taste, for you drank so many of them.”

The Earl took his cup with a sharp laugh, then realized Obdurate was serious. Still smiling, Fazgood looked to Calzjha. “Are any of your perfumes worth mixing for flavor?”

“You will not.”

Respiration waved a hand to distract the argument. “Fazgood, what did you tell the Inspector?”

“I had to tell Scout Inspector Mehzadapt that the testicles in my toolbag were not mine. He took that for granted.”

“He saw my testicles?” Calzjha was affronted.

The Earl said, “I had to prioritize. He knew from sight that they were fresh. I was tempted to say I had collected a debt, but he would have asked confirmation from the garnishee. So I told him of you, Calzjha, and of your race. I told him that you were not from the Ijkallas. You should have seen his smugness! A smug ape even as a child!”

“How did he react?” asked Obdurate.

Fazgood scratched his shin. “He had discovered a ruse that had fooled a Mezzo-Barritone of the highest judiciary. Even that knowledge did not satisfy him.

“I let him threaten and bluster and so bought myself time for a very good lie: I told him that Calzjha and I had served as guides for the general in the Ijkallas. We had been partners with the general in some diplomatic irregularities, like extorting cooperation from the Ijkallan leaders, and using Ijkallan enchantments to cover out activity. Then Calzjha and I found some more of the general’s irregularities in the quartermaster accounting. With that knowledge, we decided to play our ruse in Harmonium to leverage both the general’s shamed wife and his accomplice, the adjutant.”

The soldier groaned. “A Scout Inspector believes I am an embezzler?”

Calzjha gasped and marveled. “You invented that at that moment! Surrounded! Did he believe it?”

“The opportunity to gain advantage on a General and a paragon is so heady, he dare not believe it.”

Respiration sipped her tziembroask. She did not make a face, but did look down into the cup, perturbed at the flavor.

“Something puzzles me,” she said.

“Perhaps it could wait,” said the Earl. “Obdurate, what if the tziembroask were mixed with the caml-zre?”

Obdurate was still stunned.

The Earl reached for the caml-zre and peeled the wax seal.

“How is it that the Inspector took interest in you?” asked Calzjha. “Does he know you?”

Fazgood considered, then nodded. “I had a portion of my soul distilled, to obscure my memory of my home, and thus my identity.You’ll never imagine where my identity was secured!”

The adjutant looked up with an expression of unease. “In your relish.”

Fazgood deflated.

The soldier told of his numerical discernments, and his conclusion that the Earl had distilled himself. Both Calzjha and Respiration gave the young man flattering admiration.

Despite his jealousy at the attention, the Earl nodded. “That is a remarkable method.”

A thought took Respiration. “Something else does not seem right.”

“Would you like some caml-zre in your tziembroask, Respiration?” asked Fazgood.

“Why would the Inspector see you off into public? What assurance did he have that you were not telling a profound lie about everything, and that you were ready to ‘disappear into the night?’”

“My superior convincing.”

“What other than that?”

The Earl nodded with appreciation. “Ah. You have me.”

He set his cup upon the floor along the outside wall and asked, “Have you seen an obligationist’s work?”

All were dismayed. Obdurate and Respiration shook their heads. Calzjha clenched her fists to her temples. At the door, Warren wailed.

[My liege! No!]

The Earl said, “one’s word and nature, become bound to the obligationist. If the one so obligated were to disobey the obligationist, that one’s word loses value. As does my material. You may see.”

The Earl stepped to the lanternette and pulled up the cuffs of his pants. Three small, raw ulcers had bloomed upon each white shin.

Fine gray dust cascaded upon his shoes.

He raised his eyebrows. “Already, I become undone. Because I disobeyed and left the company of his deputies.”

Shocked, they drew close, even Warren, and examined his legs. Respiration put her hand on the Earl’s arm.

Respiration rose and stood beside him. She whispered, “What do you mean?”

“Remember at the ferry, that the deputy spoke of my ‘understanding?’”

“I…I thought he was merely imposing upon you.”

“No, I had been ordered by the Inspector to stay with those deputies. That big Adactoid was waiting for me to insist ‘I must go with the deputies, goodwife. It will be quite alright.’ I found those two boring and possibly brutal. I prefer this.”

Obdurate touched the ulcers. “But you must renegotiate his command! You will crumble into dust within a week!”

Warren added: [The only ways out of an obligation is to fulfill it, for you to be imprisoned, or for you to die!]

Fazgood let down his pantlegs and retrieved his cup.

The Earl sipped and swirled his cup casually. “True. Tomorrow, I will be only a little gray and spotty. I will seek out that ape Inspector and renegotiate my behavior. This will heal.”

Calzjha said, “But if you plan to kill him –“

“I could think whatever I wished without consequence. It is the action that causes the undoing.”

“What have you done?” Calzjha’s eyes were wet.

“Will you keep quiet!” hissed the Earl. “What did I do? I ensured the Inspector’s trust. All he needed was to confirm that there was something to my story. I assure you he would have killed me to frighten all of you, then had all of you likewise obligated.”

The Earl pointed at the hidden door. “With that little charm, Mehzadapt could obligate the Royal Family.”

In that close, humid room, all chilled.

“He had doubts when I left him,” said the Earl. “Doubtless he is belaboring his lotcaster to confirm the conspiracy I created.”

[So he is chasing his own shadow.]

“He is a crime boss. He lives by lies and threats. You should meet the fellows he has made his deputies. I remember that Scout

Deputies are supposed to be chosen as stalwarts and examples. Mehzadapt’s deputies are worse citizens than my subjects back at the earldom.”

[Did the deputies try to kill you?]

“All they needed was the command, squire.”

[Then they are not worse than your subjects: your subjects tried killing you many times on their own.]

“Yes, true.”

Said Respiration, “At the dock, that skinny Therihe had a smile like a wild dog. And that Adactoid looked like doom.”

“There was at the consultory this one fat, crafty fellow who stank like eggs, and went terrified around alcohol. He got me to wondering …”

Warren turned from the door. [A rotten egg smell? A terror of alcohol?]

“They sound like pitiful associates,” remarked Calzjha.

“They are a bunch on their last chance, and Mehzadapt makes them his deputies. He had to fight them a little too. Give me a splash of that caml-zre.”

“Poor discipline,” remarked Obdurate as he poured.

“Of all, a soldier would note that.”

Warren quickly turned back to his duty at the door.

The adjutant said, “Poor commanders promote beings they can control. Good commanders promote those who inspire the best.”

The Earl swirled the liquors in the cup and sighed, remembering his own personnel problems over his many careers. “Indeed. But now comes your moment to inspire, adjutant.”

“Truly? What would I do?”

“I will tell you, but you must have faith in me.”

He sipped and puzzled over the taste. “I had faith in you until I drank this.”

“Ignore the drink. The only way out of this is for you to sympatile the General in confidence. Make the message as secret as possible, but he must receive it quickly, hence the sympatile. You are to tell him that you suspect his wife has made him a cuckold.”

“What?” said the young man.

“Mind your cup.”

Respiration whispered, “You are joking.”

The Earl took the tziembroask and added another splash.

He sipped, and his face hardened with anger. “This has boiled my blood for the last two days, and I have kept my mouth shut. Now listen: You have brought me in to resolve this problem. You have read that god-poxied book –” he slipped into Adanikarese at that word “ – and know all I have done. There is a path out of this situation. At the end of that path, you will have each other, and the kingdom will be safe. I cannot tell you the path because the fewer who know, the easier to keep secret. The circumstance is going to get ugly. If you heed me, you will survive. If you do not heed me, all of us are doomed.”

Respiration nodded. Obdurate took a breath, then held her hand.

Fazgood insisted. “If I lack your cooperation, I might as well go to the Citadel and tell them everything, for that is what will happen anyway. Do you understand?”

“Do you have a plan?” asked Calzjha.

“Yes. This is the first step…”

The Earl told the adjutant. “You will sympatile the General. You will tell him that you suspect she is taken with the new guest from Ijkalla. Say that you overheard the guest boasting to her of being a magician. That he knows of a curse and knows how it can be destroyed and the Kingdom saved. You are puzzled by what he meant by that. Understand me?”

“Yes,” he said with resignation. “I must play a fool.”

The Earl said with annoyance. “Which as Calzjha will tell you, is the most challenging role.”

“Just dither. You dither well,” Calzjha smiled.

“It will not come to lying face-to-face, not yet. If the General believes you know any details of that curse, we are all doomed. And if he corners you and he gets something out of you, say you know nothing else and ask questions. If you have to, admit to a small lie to hide the truth. He will have some barking left, but your questions will bind him up.”

“But my husband is suspicious of everyone.”

Said the Earl, “Give him only the information he asks for.”

“This is like in the book,” the soldier took a breath. “When you were instructing the new spies for the Three Cities.”

The Earl pondered at the mention of the book, then: “Also, you can do some open duty for your country, and send the lotcaster college this message: the Scout Brigade lotcaster was in the Foreign Due. The lotcaster was a Booloob named Reedtickle. I doubt he had valid permission.”

“I’m certain he did not.”

“That will bind up our Inspector. When you are finished, tomorrow tell me everything. Remember all details.”

“I can do it.”
“Then, our regards to the Kingdom,” Fazgood sipped. “And to dead friends.”

All held their cups in both hands and nodded. The mood grown reflective, they drank in silence for another round. Warren lapped at his serving only twice, methodically, five licks each.

Her second tziembroask finished, the lovers looked to each other. With the speed of youth and ardor, without anyone’s notice,

Obdurate had already taken off his coat.

Noted the Earl. “I take my leave.”

All bade him farewell.

He added, “Tonight should be pleasant. Blood heats when pressed by a sword.”

Calzjha gave a smile, and waved farewell again.

The tziembroask had warmed Respiration so that sweat sheened her dark neck and brow.

[Are we safe to exit, squire?]

[Yes, my liege.]

They opened the door just wide enough to allow their passage.

[This has been an exhausting day, squire.]

[Will you sleep, my liege.]

The Earl scratched. [By the time I fell asleep, they would be finished.]

[That is doubtful, my liege. Last night, they went well past the third hour!]

[Past the third hour? Such is youth.]

[Actually, it was Respiration. Obdurate was enthused, but the lady was –]

[Warren, I do not need to know this.]

[Ah! Yes! My apologies! That was –]

[You are tipsy, squire. I will keep the confidence.]

At the top of the stair, Warren looked back at him. [My liege, are you well?]

[I am well. I am not so tired as I thought. Why don’t you sleep? I’ll sit here with my tziembroask.]

[If that is allowed, perhaps I will just stretch out.]

The Earl graciously set his blazer upon the floor. Warren lay upon his side and drowsed.
Fazgood sat at the top of the stair, forearms atop his knees, cup beside him to his left. He looked down the dark hall, looked up at the bricks on the ceiling, and began improvising upon his plan.


28 05 2014

On the lush green playing field of the Terhane Residences, Obdurate watched beings in yellow robes ran through a gamut of beings in red robes. A small yellow ball skipped along the grass, clacked along by strange-curved sticks held by the robed players. At intervals, all would stop, then ignore the yellow ball to walk purposefully in seemingly random directions.

Throughout, more robed figures holding banners ran through the pearly-pink arches and onto the playing field beyond these, the guest residences of the Royal Family. The banners ran in circles, the ribbons swirling around each other into a red and yellow eddy. They broke away to the four corners of the room. A shout from every throat began the play. A wicker ball ablaze with red ribbons flew from one end of the room. The standards began running around the borders of the room as another yellow ball broke into play.

Obdurate struggled with a basket of the personal property from the army lotcaster’s work-alcove. He could have sent an aide or a messenger to deliver the belongings. But the night before at dinner, Fazgood’s suspicions had aggravated Obdurate’s guilt. His anxiety over Respiration’s fate was so heavy that he could hardly breathe; he had to come here to prove the Earl’s suspicion was baseless.

From up the near sideline, a young woman trotted, flushed and sweaty in a yellow robe, and confronted the officer. Obdurate explained his business and proffered the basket.

The young woman nodded. “I’ll see that she gets her property, Captain. Set it down, sir.”

“Do not trouble. I can give it to her myself.”

“You are not allowed to enter further, captain. The Masters of Lots have closed this. Members of the Great College only.”

Looking for a clue, Obdurate turned his attention to a rousing yell from the court. “I have heard this is a complicated game.”

The woman’s attention had been drawn to the yell, and was cheered by the obscure event.

She laughed excitedly. “Yes! It is the first time many of us have played it since school days at the Great College.”

Obdurate considered the army lotcaster’s puzzlement from the previous morning.

He ventured. “This is unusual to be playing such an elaborate game above all other responsibilities.”

“It is a Therihe tradition that creates good fortune and helps banish evil and discord. We are playing to keep the tradition.”

“Pardon my question, but I seek to understand. Why do you play now?”

Her enthusiasm collapsed. His eyes actually focused on Obdurate’s, then glanced away. “It was…mandated…”

“And you play to keep the traditions.”

“Yes, captain. Indeed. It is as you say, to the keep the traditions. You really must go, Captain. Please excuse my abruptness, but I must get back.”

“Ah! Yes! Indeed! I thank you!” Obdurate said from reflex, angry that he could not find a way to press his advantage and learn more. He turned and walked back up the lawn to the empty, narrow stands.

Empty stands. Banishing evil and discord. The only one who could mandate every lotcaster would be the Masters of Lots. Above them is only the Royal Family.

He remembered Hakek-Akakel from two days before, the Exult giggling over the navy’s lotcasters being brought to find violators of the royal custom at the Eldest Daughter’s Gate.

He glanced back and saw the young man trotting away down a side of the field. A man in a yellow robe was hobbling toward him waving for help. Obdurate looked around the field; perhaps there was some sort of clue to calm the rising panic in him?

Obdurate noted an alcove on the other side of the entrance, where a group of lotcasters had gathered.

His reflexes screamed, Be obliging! Do not snoop!

But, oddly to him, he remembered ‘The Nimblest Man’, where Spymaster Fazgood walked along the streets of the Prevaricate’s capital, surrounded at every turn by twisted foes.


The Earl had related:

“All is a walk in the glade,

from demon castle to Unnamed crypt.

Nonchalance is the order, for you are caught

Only when

you are imprisoned,

And not even then if you convince them otherwise.”


This emboldened the officer to pretend to note a detail upon the lawn.

He practiced his alibi: I noted a flower and wondered about it. It wasn’t there at all! What is wrong with my eyes! So sorry!

It was so that he walked up to the enclave.

All the backs, yellow and red were turned toward him. There was an older woman, another flushed Therihe of about sixty graying years, who was presiding over the discussion. A sheave of brown foolscap trembled in her thin fingers. If Obdurate stepped forward just so, he could use a tall Human in yellow and a Booloob draped with red ribbon to block the older man from seeing the officer’s eavesdropping.

Said a woman, “I tell you! The problem is with the interpretations! The players are properly prepared! All fouls and infringements are declared and translated!”

The yellow back giving Obdurate cover shifted, and an arm waved. “The problem is with the gaming! The signs and behaviors are holding true to the participants! Every fumble, stumble, cheer, shout, every variable is considered in the definitions and twice-confirmed! Some player or proctor has not been properly cleansed!”

“If the participants are tainted, then we would have no syntax at all!”

The older woman said testily, “But what of the syntax?”

Paper rustled. “‘The Comet is throughout every neighborhood!’ ‘The Comet is known by every citizen!’ We are back to the days of oracle vaguery.”

A younger voice protested. “The police told us that three beings gained entry, one appearing as a widow, another as her daughter, and another as an animal. We deduced that The Comet is a soulful mortal, as anything without a soul or immortal would have turned up during the customs casting.”

“Indeed!” said the yellow back. “That rat is –“

“Yesterday’s castings confirm that The Comet has two associates: one is a soulful mortal who is of a race not from the Kingdom, and who can appear as a beautiful young woman.”

Obdurate’s mind cast to Calzjha, who claimed some startling abilities the night before. The officer’s stomach sank.

“The second associate is a soulful creature of great intelligence, who can appear as a rat.”

All of Obdurate’s reservations broke into a flood of anxiety.

Oh Exhus. Exhus, what have I done?

The yellow back declared. “I tell you it is this Rat who we should be concentrating upon. I am certain that creature is the leader.”

“The Comet is The Comet,” said the older woman. “That being is the one the spirits say is the most dreadful of the three! The Lotcasters in the Principality cast The Comet thirty years ago, and what appears?”

All hissed. “The Marvelmeme.”

A whimper escaped Obdurate’s throat, The Marvelmeme!

Thirty years before, that terrible creature had awoke from some sort of dormancy, oozed through fissures in the mountain rock, and slowly convinced two thousand ri’s worth of land to become a living wall of rocks, trees and embedded beings. Radiant Semantic, the third Royal Prince, fought and transformed the creature into basalt, saving the day, but unable to save the hundreds it had absorbed.

I have placed Respiration in the same house with the Marvelmeme!

But the older woman had been speaking!

“– not asking the correct questions. If we cannot deduce this, we will waste time trying to get the Jezr-Ji to agree to new vocabulary.”

The Jezr-Ji?

A Booloob’s quaver. “What can be mortal, yet permeates all places and soulful beings?”

Obdurate sucked his lips to keep from exclaiming, A dusk thicket tale! Through that story, everyone knows the Earl! Because of that story, the Earl is everywhere! The Earl’s exact location is lost in the fog of familiarity!

The older Therihe thumped a shoulder and pointed at the game. “We will change the players at the rising of Minque. Summon the senior students from the academy to aid us.”

“If we do not know what the nature of The Comet, what use is the game?”

“Perhaps we will be lucky and the banners will touch one who knows –-“

Obdurate staggered away, reining the blind run that seized his feet.

The Earl was right! He must be gone tonight! He must be gone now!


*         *         *


Around the Earl, the inn bustled with patrons eating their dinner. Tables were crowded with a heartening babble of languages. The air was thick with smokes and the smell of spilled liquors.

He tried to summon a thirst for tziembroask, but failed. The innkeep of the Three Bellflowers slipped through between the tables to greet the new arrival.

Peering at Fazgood’s burden, she asked, “What have you in the cask?”

“A favor for which I will pay! I know you are busy, but have you a tight steaming pot and a corner of an oven I may use?”

Her head cocked with puzzlement. “Our cook would find it difficult to work with another at her elbow. We are serving dinner. Would you like to know what she cooks tonight?”

Fazgood set the cask on the table. “I am sure it is delicious. All I ask is for a pot of water, an oven, and an hour’s time. I would feast on all that is offered, as long as I can try my hand at cooking these.”

The cask was opened and crabs revealed.

“Good sir! We are serving oyster stew this evening!”

From up the kitchen steps a waiter struggled past with a blue porcelain pot.

Damn all of this! I will have my meal!

Fazgood resisted snarling, and picked the chest up.

“Let us ask the cook!” he crowed, and he hobbled down the stairs with the goodlady close behind voicing protests.

At the bottom of the stairs was a brick room with blazing fireplace and ferocious heat. Two young humans, bald-pated and arms shaven, shucked and chopped oysters and peeled crayfish.

Behind a long stove of red porcelain and enamel, a woman banged a ladle on the side of a bubbling pot. She looked to the intrusion.

“The residences are upstairs!” she roared.

Fazgood slammed the cask upon the floor. “Cook! You have earned a blessing! For yours is the only kitchen in the entire of Harmonium trusted by the pallet of the Great Foofaloof of the Ijkalla Islands! Tonight, you shall cook for the Foofaloof and that respected paragon, the Goodwife Greatsergeant! The Foofaloof insists that I provide all due assistance to aid your artistry!”

The cook goosed into amazement.

Always flatter artists, noted the Earl.

It was this way that the corner of a stove procured, and a true cook swayed to the cause. The cook procured a pot as he unpacked the crabs. He tucked the antler away within his jacket.

The cook examined the crabs and deemed them passable. She sniffed the spices and found them wanting, to which the Earl demurred humbly to superior knowledge. The relish bottle! The cook picked it up in her huge, calloused hands.

The proprietress cooed. “Such skillful glasswork!”

The cook held it to the cookfire’s light and squinted. “What is in it?”

Fazgood forced a smile through his trepedation at the bottle’s handling. “It is a rare relish the Foofaloof enjoys!”

The cook asked, “May I taste some?”

“I will ask the Foofaloof.”

The Earl kept the written recipe from the shopkeep well hid in his blazer. The pot was set to boil. The cook set to a simple mixture of her own herbs, sea salt, and vinegar. The Earl slipped the five crabs into the pot, and the antler within the five crabs. The cook poured her mixture atop of all and the lid to the shiny blue pot tightly sealed.

She said, “Crabs boil in one half an hour. The Foofaloof and the paragon will not wait long.”

The Earl blessed the goodlady proprietress and the cook, and the cook blessed the Fooflaloof, and all swept away a tear of joy.

“Let us retire to the dining room,” said the proprietress.

“I would be here when you –- what would be the word? Decant?”

“Ha!” laughed the cook. “Decant crab like a liquor! All the crabs will do is steam and steep in a pot! There is no need to fret! I will call when the pot is opened!”

The Earl and the innkeep stepped into the noisy dining room. A maid called the goodlady away, and Fazgood was left on a stool to rest his aching knee.

Indeed, he mused. What a day of activities.

He let his mind to wander for a moment, feeling comfortable with the slackness.

I wonder what my life would have been like if I had not had to look over every crowd I found?

That was a bad question, for it set his mind to wandering more to spite him. He noted a group of five merchants slurping soup, laughing, with no need to guard. There was a time he would have picked their pockets for spite.

He assessed his situation.

I still have the knife, he considered. I have money. I left the skullwarmer at the keep, but there are weapons at hand all over in a dining area.

I tossed the false toolbag. That was a mistake, but it would have been more foolish to keep it. Should have hidden it. I was followed. They stole the toolbag. Calzjha can be traced in a heartbeat with his bodyparts to guide whoever has the bag.

It would take them at least a half-hour to arrive if I called Warren now. Calzjha is gelded and not yet healed. The goodwife and that captain would be useless. Whoever has that toolbag will roll them all up rather tidily.

The Earl kept close to the wall. He hunched away from the front door. He glanced around. The rafters. The brick walls. The good-natured babbling creatures in civilized clothing. Their voices crashed his ears. All squeezed upon him.

The door. Was there someone at the door? Someone who just ducked out?

The proprietress, near the door. She was staring across the room at the Earl then set to chatting with a sudden wide smile with a table of diners, a grevious look in her eyes, the unmistakable sullen guilt of an informant.

If anyone asked for me, she would have to tell or suffer.

The crab is in the pot. Capture is outside the door.

A moosecrab. I’ll be killed in my home, a home I long ago foreswore, over a moosecrab.

He considered, weary, Be killed over that as over a pile of money. With money, you die hungry.

The Earl felt a nudge at his shoulder. He spun.

The cook said, “Your crabs are done. I was about to put them out.”

“I am sorry. I was startled.”

He motioned for the innkeeper. “Did someone ask for me?”

Her face was all blank innocence and eyes unblinking. “Were you expecting someone to ask?”

I thank you alumni, thought the Earl. She reveals The Tells of Treachery Numbers One, Three, and Eight.

“I’ll need a room upstairs to eat. Away from the others.”

The goodwife remembered to smile. “Shouldn’t you be taking the food to the Foofaloof?”

“I will be taking the pot to them,” he replied. “After I eat.”

“You should go quickly then! The pot will cool, and the flavor will dim!”

Said the Earl. “I am famished. I would like to take the pot and eat my crab upstairs.”

“You should eat your meal with your master.”

“He is a forgiving soul. I note that no waiters have gone upstairs.”

He pulled out all of the money remaining in his pocket. The sheaf of specie was still thick enough.

“I would still be on my way quickly.”

The goodwife’s smile ceased its painful stretching.

Added the Earl. “If I have visitors I can receive them there.”

She shook her head, protesting visitors are best received at home, but her eyes were still fixed like a doll’s, demonstrating Tell Number Four.

He stuffed the money into her hands and followed the cook into the kitchen. She drained the water from the pot into a sink. When she turned to a serving bowl, Fazgood seized a wood spoon and tumbled the crabs in, and set the bowl’s lid on. He picked up the bowl and slipped by the cook before she could ask of the odd object.

Fazgood pressed by the goodwife and slipped through the crowd and up the stairs. His right knee stabbed in pain from his past exertions.

A lantern cast dim light onto the walls and window, and reflected a moony sheen against the stacks of plates and bowels on a hutch at the far end of the table.

He set the serving bowel upon the table and plucked up a plate. The goodwife and a maid was at the door.

“Please get me a pitcher of water. And a bottle of tziembroask,” he said to the maid.

Even if I don’t drink the tziembroask, he thought, It will good to have a friendly face in the room.

Seeing Fazgood preparing to dine, the goodwife flipped one of her wringing hands and sent the maid running.

Should I wait for the water? Ask for some fruit or cream?

There was a scuffing at the door, and Fazgood noted the goodwife had gone.

He cast his mind down the tunnel to contact Warren. The light at the tunnel grew, and he saw through Warren’s eyes. In the shared bedroom, Calzjha sat up on the mattress. On the far side of Calzjha, Respiration sat.

The goodwife was speaking, “—- Obdurate sent word that he would join us for dinner and that everyone must be in attendance. There is no –-“

[Warren, I believe I am about to be murdered.]

[What! What is this! Calzjha, the Earl communicates –]

[I became hasty, and I became sloppy. I am followed and betrayed to the Brigades. I am at the Three Bellflowers in the Foreign Due. I suspect you may find the body there. Now I will eat moosecrab.]

[My Earl, please –]

Fazgood pulled himself out of the tunnel. He sensed Warren’s mind pattering after him, but suppressing Warren’s insight required minimal will, doing so left only a nagging feeling of something creeping under his chair.

A bitter thing to do, but there is no need for an audience.

He raised the lid and was enveloped in steam. Within the crabs was the antler, gleaming with sweat, specked with herbs.

I lost my will. I went mad finally, and enchanted myself on a suicide errand. That must be what happened.

He flicked the still-hot antler onto a plate and slipped the knife from his pocket. He pulled the dull blade and laid the sheath to the side.

Crack! The knife went into the shell as a delicious, salty steam curled.

The relish! He pulled the bottle from his inside pocket.

He admonished himself from before the journey (the Hrikinik-employed, still-sharp self of just months prior), Let’s what all this is about.

He cut and unraveled the gold seal into a length of pretty gold ribbon. No metallic tapping.

He untwisted the stopper. His nostril hairs felt the fire of the relish first. His nose stung as if swarmed by tiny, biting ants.

Tap tap tap the bottlemouth onto his plate. No relish came out. He growled then the knife fished up the bottleneck to goad the relish. A flow of yellow fluid, chunky and moist, spilled out, accented by tiny black flecks and tinier red seeds.

A scuff at the door brought his attention up to the maid with a pitcher of water and a brown bottle of –- the dim light gleamed upon the elaborate porcelain work, the leaves of the stylized rosebush gleaming umber as it reached up and around to the blue-waxed stopper at the top. He recognized the bottle’s style.

Maktmerkt Eicht Bonded Tzeimbroask.

The pitcher of water he ignored.

The Earl took the knife and dug out a steaming, juicy alabaster piece of moosecrab.

He stabbed the knife tip into the chunk. He swirled it into the relish and –-

“Aspirant Pehzpersist, though I remember different,” said the Inspector at the door, behind the frightened maid. “You have come up in the gods’ favor.”

The knife stopped halfway to Fazgood’s mouth.

“You can go,” the Inspector said to the maid. “We will not be disturbed.”

The maid slipped away. The Inspector stepped into the room. The lamplight caught his copper curls and made them gleam red. Beyond the maid’s skipping steps, the Earl noted that the conversation downstairs had gotten noticeably hushed and breathy, whispers of anticipation echoing up to the place of interest. Other slow, methodical clacks of steps followed the Inspector’s, more companions coming up the brick stairs stealthily.

Fazgood considered the moosecrab just inches from his mouth.

What will this do if I eat it? What would I be capable of putting in this relish, and what would happen if I ate it now? How much mayhem could I have imagined to mix in these spices?

The Inspector stepped to the table and pulled up a stool. “Your meal is interrupted, and for that I apologize.”

He sat down with an affable sigh, not asking permission to sit. Behind him, a huge Adactoid filled the doorway.

The Earl’s heart fluttered in panic. He took a breath. He scraped the knife against the plate edge, easing the crab morsel back onto the plate. He turned behind him. He held a plate, which he showed to Mehzadapt. He turned the plate over and covered his food to keep it from going cold.

Another deputy took up position at the door, a wide-eyed and grinning Therihe.

Mehzadapt chose his words. “You…have found advantage since last you were in our city.”

“I…have never…never visited Harmonium.”

A thick pink hand rose in protest. “You were born here, and lived here a time. I remember you. Do you remember me?”

Fazgood gave shrug. His heart pounded.

The Inspector leaned, his fingertips upon the table. “Do you remember the name Mehzadapt?”

“No…honestly, no.”

“We were friends as children! Surely you remember me? I have changed, but my name has not.”

The Earl shook his head, his lip formed a protest that would not come.

The Brigadesman tapped the pot. “What have you here?”

Fazgood, frozen, surrounded by sneers, did not reply.

“What is it?” snapped the Inspector.


“No moosecrabs?”

Refelxively, Fazgood said, “They’re fallow.”

Mehzadapt picked up the lid of the tureen with the remaining crabs, peeked and poked at them, then dropped the lid back with a clatter. Fazgood jumped.

The Inspector threw his hands up in a mockery of gossip. “I have something far more interesting than crabs.”

He snapped a knuckle and the toolbag was passed forward. The Inspector dropped the toolbag onto the Earl’s covered plate. Fazgood’s hands flew to keep the plates properly set, covering the antler.

“A concerned citizen found this bag. Imagine how awkward it would have been if some child had opened the bag.”

The Inspector reached. With his left hand he seized Fazgood’s clenched fingers. The Inspector’s right hand pinched Fazgood’s cheek. “Why in Exhus’ name do you have human testicles in this bag?”

Fazgood endured the pinch. The Inspector let go and clapped his shoulder.

“I know not what this bag is about. If you are collecting a debt, or enacting a vengeance, then you have found woe. The Scout Brigades are the only ones licensed to those tasks. This bag would have been very awkward for you if it had been found by the police. So, you are obliged to me. Speak your obligation.”

“I, Pehzpersist, am obliged to you –“

“But you are not Pehzpersist!” yelled the Inspector in Fazgood’s ear.

The deputies chuckled.

“You are named Fazgood. You were exiled. You have returned for mischief and you are obligated to me.”

The Earl’s chin was tucked against his chest, heart curling into a child’s fear.

“Speak your obligation. There is our way or the way we treat strangers. You are home. So speak your obligation.”

A whisper. “My name is Pehzpersist.”

The Inspector snarled and waved a hand. “Has Reedtickle arrived?”

“Is Reedtickle arrived?” said Varalam. “Just arrived, he has.”

Another wave. The Adactoid made way and the Booloob floated through the doorway, brown sphere shimmering in the lamplight, plughat planted firm. The lotcaster drifted over the Inspector’s shoulder.

Reedtickle warbled. “The wind over the river buffeted one, but here I am. What do you wish?”

Mehzadapt leaned back upon his stool. “I want his lies sent flying back down his throat.”

“A tone to squash lies. Should he know that it will be very painful?”

“Let us show him. Commence the tone.”

The Booloob vibrated, and a sound filled the room. It tickled deep within the ear, and cause all hold hands to their heads. On the table, the plates vibrated in slow, regular rhythms.

Impatient, Mehzadapt spat. “What is your name?”

“My name is Pehzper –- ugh!”

The Earl whooped and gagged on the lie as it was forced back down his throat and back into his lungs. He coughed and held fingers up to his mouth. He coughed again and they spattered with blood.

“A few more like that,” the Inspector grinned, “and you will be drowning in your own juices. Let us try this again. What is your name?”

Fazgood coughed. He stared at more blood and paled. “What is your business? I do not know you!”

The Inspector leaned forward, realizing what was said. He looked to the lotcaster.

The bubble-being dipped and bobbed, in a manner like a shrug. “He does not know you, Inspector. Either his memory is poor, or he had no past with you.”

“I know different,” Mehzadapt whispered. “What is your name?”

Fazgood’s lips tightened.

“I am hungry,” he said.

Fazgood pushed the plate the plate from over the antler. In one move, Fazgood seized the cracked antler in one hand and smeared it through the large pile of relish upon the plate. He bit.

Once past the crack of the shell, the sweet, buttery, long-dreamed and yearned for crab-meat squished into his maw. The relish mixed with the meat and fell upon the exposed flesh of his mouth and tongue.

The first taste of that relish is sweet, near the tip of the tongue. The tongue was baffled by this honeyed bath, and in a misguided joy tossed the mouthful over its back.

That is the fatal error with Lava-God-Vengenace Relish.

As the mouthful slides upon the crest of the tongue, the taste buds burn. The burn then seems a coal of white-hot iron. The throat closes from the fumes from the red ntotlo pepper, a pepper specially bred to season the sedimentary meals of the stone-palleted Molaks.

This activates the subtlest ingredient of all: the slightest hints of magnesium liberate, the spiritual quality of magnesium liberated from its physical form. Sages have never found a practical application for this liberate, a liberate so fiery that ghosts flinch at its touch, except as the secret ingredient of Lava-God-Vengenace Relish.


*         *         *


Fazgood felt a yelp echoing in his head. All of his tension, the stink of the room and of the deputy, the very pressure of the humid air, all vanished.

He knew this feeling. He looked down. Beyond his feet, which were limned with a slight port-colored haze, he saw himself on the stool at the Inn.

The Earl’s body leaned back very slowly into a ghastly choke. Beside the body, the Inspector slowly rose from his stool.

The deputies also had dropped their poses of menace and had leaned forward in alarm. All were frozen, no, moving very, very slowly.

Had Fazgood lungs, he would have sighed with annoyance.

He looked about his mauved form to mists rising to the unseen firmament.


The mist revealed nothing.

[Hrikinik, you grasping noisemaker!]

Came tickling through the supernatural surroundings an irritation, a grating metallic rattle.

Through that rattle came a trilling, [My Comet! Too long! Too long! Too long it has been!]

The mist parted and two figures approached.

The one to the left was a great viscid column, green, dripping and gruelent.

Drifting before that was a pile of blue fleshy folds, enrobed in a scintillating crystal fabric. Its chest and thorax rattled and sucked with valves, reeds, and bladders. Atop its blue head sat a set of black pipes cut with mouths, a living pipe-organ.

[My Comet!] said H’rikinik, [So bored! I have missed your antics so! You are days late in your call!]

The Earl looked to the pillar of mucous. [Greetings, Kri-Tzh.]

Fangs opened in the slime. [Greetings, Fazgood.]

Fazgood looked to his former employer with a sneer. [Why did I do all of this?]

The Half-Prince opened his hands in supplication. [You asked humbly for a favor! I am always willing to indulge my thralls, particularly my most amusing ones.]

The Earl looked down to the room. Deputies slipped forward, the Booloob eased back, and the Inspector dodged, his face crushed with an odd disappointment.

Hrikinik drifted close to block Fazgood’s view.

[I see our bottle of relish! And you have tasted your Harmonium Moosecrab! Ugh! What did that poor crab do to you?]

[It wasted my time. Why am I here?]

[Revenge, dear Comet! You are here in Harmonium for an act of vengeance! Thirty years ago, someone betrayed your mentors to their fiery death! It was your dearest wish for thirty years to enter Harmonium and murder the traitor!]

Fazgood snorted. [You can not fool me! The Eleven Circles died but…but…]

H’rikinik’s orifices opened for a roaring laugh. [But you do not remember how they came to be in the fire! A trusted messenger brought them all together in a secret hideout, after telling the Brigade captains the time and location!]

Below, a deputy had reached the antler in Fazgood’s grasp. The Inspector had retreated to the far corner of the room.

[You were that messenger! Betrayed by one who told you a lie.]

Fazgood chilled. I killed them? It is my fault they are dead?

[You escaped,] the Timpanate fluttered his hands, [and lived your life exiled. You buried your guilt and rage deep! Its fire propelled you for decades!]

The Inspector’s grimace of disappointment grew, grotesque in its slow blooming.

[And thirty years later! Ah-ha-ha! Idle chat with a merchant informed you that your betrayer was now exalted! Exalted in the home that denied you! Exalted over the lonely graves of your friends!]

The Earl racked his mind. [Why can’t I remember any of this?]

[That is the genius! That is your genius! You are no murderer, but you have cunning almost beyond mine! You had to get into Harmonium, past their admittedly skilled lotcasters. Those customs-casters would find an ambitious murderer with no exertion! How do you get past the lotcasters? Tell me!]

A deputy had picked up the sparkling glass bottle. It was up to his nose, and his entire face inched away from the proximity.

Prompted Hrikinik, [When working with the Emperor, you told me you had encountered a marvelous poison gas! Two inert ingredients. By themselves they attract no notice.]

Quashing the hateful memory of that poison, the Earl saw the sparkling bottle anew.

[That party trick of yours of putting your loathing into a bottle and serving it to guests…]

[Yes! The relish! Contains your memory of your friends’ betrayal! Contains the motive for the murder! Bereft of motive, we replaced your need to be in Harmonium with an obsession with…ah-ha-ha…what passes for unique cuisine! In the home of…ha-ha…of gummy toast!]

Hrikinik was lost in laughter: the sound of sacks of metal beaten against a herd of sheep.

[And the motive was placed in a substance no sane person would swallow,] Fazgood considered.

Hrikinik nodded.

The Earl said, [Gods, that is a good idea.]

[I would have thought of it.]

[But did you, oh great Timpanate?]

The Adanikarese seethed. He gathered his composure, [I did mean to tell you something very important to your brilliant plan…]

He leaned close.

[Moosecrab is fallow this year.]

[You knew?!]

Enraged, the Earl lunged to throttle the Half-Prince. The tower of mucus pressed.

[This is our land, Faz,] warned the horror. [He says the word and I will make you a cyst on my ass, and you know that.]

Fazgood swore many profanities, then: [What of the book, this “Nimblest Man” book? Did you know of that?]

The Sorcerer sobered. [What book?]

The Earl told of “The Nimblest Man.”

Said Hrikinik, [The spirits said it was best you undertook your endeavor immediately. This is to your advantage, and it explains much. Look as I teach.]

Long fingers strummed at the mist. The clouds parted from above the slow franticism of the Bellflower. In the distance was a glowing mountain of light.

The Earl gasped at such beauty.

[What is that?]

[It is the spirit of Harmonium, such as it is. Adanikar has such aura and subtlety that an army of gods would willingly –]

[Then you bored me again. Did you have purpose in showing me?]

Above the mountain, through the wine-lit glow, a giant spirit in flowing red and yellow robes. Its hands, larger than ships, waving through the purple mist.

Hrikinik chuckled. [The Temporary God searches for you. It should have made short work of you. But it seems you are everywhere in the city, as the book has made you so. Gossip is a ruse the Adanikarese know well for baffling simple spirits. Limit your physical touch with others and you will keep safe.]

The Earl shook his head. [Another god to avoid.]

[My little snorting havoc-wright, I have fulfilled my part of our bargain. I have but one question: How is the nerve toy you stole from me?]

[Calzjha is well. And I won a bet, if you remember.]

[You cheated.]

It was Fazgood’s turn to laugh. It felt good.

[Have you experienced my nerve toy yet?]

[Calzjha does what Calzjha wants to do.]

[You shall in time. The temptation is too great, even for one who dreads comfort.]

[So spoke the one who dreads everything.]

The Sorcerer made to retort, but with a smile and a wave of dismissal, the Timpanate said, [Dread? Your life-long enemy sits before you. You are too mild to kill him. That is something to dread!]


*         *         *


A wheezing roar filled his head. Cold water poured into his mouth and overflowed over his face and shirt. Hands pounded his back.

“Drink this! Drink this!”

“Ugh! What whim took him to even taste this stuff!”

“Should I get a physic? Perhaps I should get a physic?”

Fazgood swallowed and pushed the pitcher away. He held up a hand and took a breath. His throat felt shriveled. Tentatively, his tongue wiggled, dazed yet rejoicing to have survived. Numbly, it felt the morsel of crab, was prodded by bits of shell. Fazgood realized his face was locked, squinted and clenched. With effort, he swallowed.

Then rage swept over him.

He’s here! The man who ruined my life! I’d be happy if it weren’t for him!

Blind, he reached his right hand at the table. He pushed past a deputy’s shoulder. Unerringly, fingers seized a bumpy, round, hard object. With one stroke of his thumbnail, he scraped the wax seal from the tziembroask bottle.

He opened his eyes. His first sight was the Adactoid’s scarred, craggy face.

The deputy laughed. “We thought you had poisoned yourself!”

Fazgood’s mouth opened into a cry of anguish at the relish. It suppressed his desire to cry:

Mehzadapt! Here in front of me! Murderer! Traitor!

The Earl pressed his left hand past the massive shoulder and grabbed a cup from the corner of the table. The thumb eased the flat porcelain stop from the bottle. He poured himself a cup and drank. That fire warmed like a baked loaf of bread in autumn.

Fazgood picked up a napkin, wiped the water and sweat from his face, and blew his nose.

From the doorway, the russet-haired Inspector said, “What are you trying to do? You need to behave better!”

It’s him!

He poured and drank another cup. The warmth spread. He choked out a roar of hate. Covered his nose and blew again.

The warmth eased into his neck. His breath came slower.

Behave better? Oh Mehzadapt, you haven’t seen the first of how I will behave.

The Earl balled up the napkin and dabbed his brow to hide his recognition.

He coughed. “That, good citizens, was the Lava-God’s-Revenge.”

“Sniff this!” said the flushing man. “It could melt barnacles!”

The Adactoid took the bottle, tiny in his plate-wide hand, sniffed, then yelped.

The Earl slapped the cup onto the table. Behind the Earl, the heavy scout gave an odd squeak and backed away.

“Cornpudding,” warned the Inspector.

Fearful, a round, stinking deputy edged away.

Fazgood quickly poured another cup and offered to all. “Would you like a drink? Pardon my rudeness.”

The deputy shook his head, cheeks quivering.

“He don’t drink!” smirked the skinny one. “Gets all scared about it.”

The Inspector Mehzadapt pressed to the table and clapped the Adactoid on the shoulder. “I will take it from here, deputy. I will have that drink, Fazgood.”

The Earl wiped his eyes again and took another deep breath. “Bring a cup. Is there a cup?”

Another drink was poured. Mehzadapt’s mouth pulled as the tziembroask bit his stomach.

“Not bad,” he said. “But I prefer caml-zre.”

The Inspector noted the bottle, and saw the Birqmuir seal.

“Spend much time in the Empire, Fazgood?”

“Years ago, I did. Inspector.”

The Inspector noted the bold tone of voice and said, “Are you certain you do not recognize me?”

Careful, thought the Earl.

“If I seem changed, Inspector, try some relish and discover why.”

Mehzadapt looked back to the Booloob in the doorway. The hat rotated a little, another shrug.

The Inspector regarded the glittering bottle with a twitch of apprehension, then noted his surrounding deputies. “I will. Later.”

The deputies all snorted, but regarded the bottle with curiosity.

Fazgood said, “Pardon my taking food. I was famished, and I become faint in such times. Bread would serve me better. Would you like some bread?”

Without waiting for an answer, the Earl pulled a piece of bread and picked up the dull knife. In the ruckus, no one had noted it between the plate and the crab tureen. All started, but the Earl dipped the knife into the relish bottle and dabbed some small chunks. He exhaled through puffed lips, bit and chewed. He set the knife down.

“You will eat when I tell you to eat,” said the Inspector.

“Ah. Indeed. I’ll not be much help faint. And the bread helps much.”

“Set the bread down.”

The Earl took one more bite. Then, he pointedly set the bread on the plate.

Mehzadapt snarled. “Spit that out on the floor. Aim well.”

“No need to menace, Inspector,” Fazgood swallowed, with no more wince than when he drank the tziembroask. “I will tell you everything you want to know. You’re going to want this to be a secret, though. You know where I’ve been living.”

The Inspector noted that swallow. His face reddened. But his eyes betrayed his weighing of those last words.

“I do,” added Fazgood, “prefer the easy way. However, I run full gallop at the moneyed way. This is your city, and any such trails belong to you.”

The Earl waved and indicated all in the room.

“I say: this moneyed trail has room for many.”

Mehzadapt stared full into Fazgood’s eyes. The Earl looked back at him, hands folded.

“Tlezjoy, clear this end of the table. Then you and Cornpudding leave. Varalam and Reedtickle, sit at the far end of the table.”

The table was cleared, as it kept all sharp or potentially sharp objects from Fazgood’s grasp; but not the tziembroask bottle as the Earl made a point to seize it. The deputies redistributed.

The toolbag was placed on the floor.

“You have my attention,” said Mehzadapt.

The Earl poured another cup. “You wouldn’t believe the fluxion flowing in that keep, Inspector.”


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