Либрусек (книги fb2)
D M Cornish Foundling
IT BEGAN WITH A FIGHT
Rossamund was a boy with a girl's name. All the other children of Madam Opera's Estimable Marine Society for Foundling Boys and Girls teased and tormented him almost daily because of his name. And this day Rossamund would have to fight his worst tormentor, Gosling-a boy who had caused him more misery than any other, a boy he worked hard to avoid. Unfortunately, when it was time to practice harundo, there was no escaping him.
At Rossamund's feet was the edge of a wide chalk circle drawn upon floorboards so fastidiously cleaned that the grain protruded as polished ridges. Opposite stood his enemy. Regretting the ill fortune that had paired him with his old foe, Rossamund frowned across the circle; sour-faced and lank-haired, Gosling stared back contemptuously. The blankness behind Gosling's eyes terrified Rossamund; his opponent was a heartless shell. He delighted in causing pain, and Rossamund knew that he would have to fight better today than he ever had before if he was to avoid a beating.
"I'm going to thrash you good, Rosy Posy," Gosling hissed.
"Enough of that, young master Gosling!" barked the portly cudgel-master, Instructor Barthom?us. "You know the Hundred Rules, boy. Silence before a fight!"
Both Rossamund and Gosling wore padded sacks of dirty white cotton, tied with black ribbons over their day-clothes. Each boy held a stock-a straight stick about two and a half feet long. Harundo was a form of stick-fighting, and these were their weapons.
Rossamund was never able to get a comfortable hold on a stock. With the fight about to start, he shifted his awkward grip again. He tried to remember all the names, the moves, the positions he had ever been taught. The Hundred Rules of Harundo made perfect sense, but no matter how often he had trained or fought in practice, he could never make his body obey them.
In Madam Opera's Estimable Marine Society for Foundling Boys and Girls the only room large enough for harundo was the dining hall. Trestles and benches had been dragged clear and left higgledy-piggledy against the walls. The cudgel-master raised his whistle and the two dozen other children standing around the circle fell silent. Rossamund noticed some of them grinning knowingly. Others stared-slack-jawed and wondering-while the littlest shuddered with fear.
Gosling twirled his stock with a swagger.
Rossamund looked to the overcleaned floorboards and waited.
The whistle shrilled.
Gosling strutted into the ring. "Time to get your scourging, Missy," he gloated. "You've managed to dodge me all week, so you'll suffer extra today."
"That is enough, Gosling!" bellowed Barthom?us.
Rossamund barely heard either of them. The Hundred Rules were racing madly about his mind as he stepped into the chalk circle. If he could just get them straight in his head, surely his limbs would follow!
With a venomous snarl, Gosling rushed him.
The tangle of Rossamund's thoughts served only to tangle his body. Were his hands in the right place? What about his feet? How close was he to the edge of the ring? What was Instructor Barthom?us thinking of what he was doing? What would happen if he actually did land a blow?
Gosling swept up his stock clumsily. He was not much better at harundo than Rossamund. Any other child, even many of the little ones, would have stepped out of the way, just as they should, and given Gosling a good crack on his back or shoulder. Instead, Gosling's vehemence forced Rossamund to take a clumsy backward step. By a small miracle, he got his stock up in time to swat away this first strike. The sticks collided with a deeply satisfying chock!
Gosling gave a furious curse as he was thrown back. He bared his teeth.
That felt right! Rossamund thought, a tiny glow of triumph within.
"No, dear boy! No! Left decede, then counteroffend with a culix!" Instructor Barthom?us hollered at Rossamund. "You've seen it done. You've practiced it, lad! Just step away, then behind, then a jab-jab-jab with the handle! A halfhearted sustis is just not enough, boy!"
Rossamund was deflated. Just when he thought he was getting it right, he was actually doing things worse than ever.
Gosling was on him by then, chopping at his head again and again with his stock. Rossamund blocked one strike, swatted away another, then let one through. It smacked him crunchingly hard across his cheek and mouth. His head bursting with agony, his face stinging, Rossamund flung his own stock out wildly, skewering Gosling right under his ribs.
With a wheeze and a gurgle, Gosling lurched backward.
Some of the littlest children gave a tiny cheer, but quickly went silent as Gosling swung around and glared at them. Rage clearly boiled within him. He threw down his stock and leaped. Instructor Barthom?us tried to intervene, but Gosling darted beyond his grasp, tackling Rossamund about his stomach.
"No one stops me!" Gosling hissed through gritted teeth as he drove Rossamund down to the glistening floor.
That's not true, Rossamund thought as they tumbled. The others beat you all the time!
Gosling smashed at him over and over with his fists. Rossamund saw stars as Gosling struck him once, twice, three more times in the head. Instructor Barthom?us blustered sharp warnings that were ignored. Finally he grabbed at Gosling and dragged him off, but not before Gosling had landed cruel blows in tender places. The boy swatted at the air as the cudgel-master hefted and flung him to the other side of the ring.
"Get back, you miserable child!" roared Barthom?us.
Dazzled, his head ringing with pain, Rossamund thought the instructor was shouting at him, and so he stayed down. Indeed, he found that he much preferred to lie still while the world swam.
Though clench-fisted and seething, Gosling did not move.
Rossamund groaned. He felt powerful, serious pains he had never felt before.
Fransitart, the stoop-shouldered dormitory master, was called, and Verline, Madam Opera's parlor maid, too.
The telltale sound of Verline's rustling skirts arrived well before her. When she saw Rossamund stricken within the chalk ring, she gave a startled cry.
Rossamund's senses began to fade. He was vaguely aware of voices raised in shrill anger. He dimly felt a cloth dabbing at his face. Somehow Master Fransitart was already there.The old dormitory master was growling at Gosling as the other children were shepherded out of the dining hall with a loud scuffing of boots.
Instructor Barthom?us lifted Rossamund to his feet and wrapped him in a blanket. Verline let him lean on her all the long, crooked way to the boy's dormitory, murmuring soothing, almost wordless things as they went. The dormitory was very long and very narrow and very, very smelly. Side by side, end on end, was crammed a clutter of cots-there was never enough room in Madam Opera's. The dormitory was empty now. The other boys were still attending to classes and day-watch duties. Rossamund's own cot was at the farthest end from the short, narrow door. With the parlor maid's help he stumbled through the inadequate gap between the beds, adding a stubbed toe to his woes. At last he could lie down, his head pounding, his cheek pounding-throb, throb-sharp, iron-tasting.
Verline fussed over him. "You'll need a dose of birchet to set you to mending. I will fetch some from Master Craumpalin right away! You lie still, now. I'll return as soon as I can." With that, she swished away.
Master Craumpalin was the foundlingery's dispensurist. This meant that he made most of the medicine and potives the marine society needed. From what Rossamund could gather, Master Craumpalin had once served in the navy, just as Master Fransitart had done, though not always on the same vessels or for the same states. The old dispensurist had seen half the known world, and cured the rashes and fevers of a great many vinegaroons-as sailors were called-but that was all anyone seemed to know of him. He talked even less of his past than Master Fransitart did. Nevertheless, he let Rossamund sit with him for hours at a time while he dabbled and brewed. Most of the time Craumpalin worked in silence and the boy would just learn what he could by watching. Occasionally, however, the dispensurist became talkative and would instruct him on the uses of potives, showing him how to pour and blend and stir and store. One of the greatest thrills for Rossamund was to watch the wonderful and often violent reactions between ingredients as Craumpalin mixed and matched them.
Red goes with green and makes purple, blue powdered in yellow makes off-white with olive spots, black boiled in white makes vermilion with orange vapors-how wonderful! These moments were so exciting, Rossamund would hop about and usually get under the dispensurist's feet. At this Craumpalin would yell, "Pullets and cock'rels, boy! Get out of me way before I spill this on ye and melt ye to a puddle!"
Rossamund smiled woozily at the thought. Now he wanted to sleep but his aching face would not let him. He stared dumbly at the ceiling, obscure with shadows that seemed to creep and lurch. It had been a long time since he had been in the dormitory on his own-he had forgotten just how weirdly unnerving it could be in here, alone.
Such glimpses of the oppressive dark naturally led his thinking to Gosling-Gosling Corvinius Arbour of the Corvinius Arbours-a powerful family with ties to some of the most ancient bloodlines of Boschenberg and Brandenbrass, far away to the south. He was notorious at Madam Opera's for many reasons, but the chief of these was the vigor with which he strove to make everyone's life a misery. He would cut the hair of sleeping girls, glue shut the eyes of sleeping boys, put earwigs and dead things in unguarded shoes or untenanted beds, blab any secret he might discover. Punishment, no matter how severe, proved useless, for Gosling just did not care. He had been abandoned at Madam Opera's foundlingery by his family. It was said that his parents had given him up so that they might afford to keep a pair of racehorses. Such a pathetic tale of rejection had not stopped Gosling from declaring to everyone just how important he really was, that he was not some ordinary fellow with only one name, but that he had three: a first name, a forename and a family name!
This grim line of thinking led Rossamund to brood over his own, single and unfortunate name. He had spent his entire life beneath the high, peeling ceilings of Madam Opera's Estimable Marine Society for Foundling Boys and Girls. He had arrived when he was little more than a wailing pink prune, left on the doorstep with an old piece of hatbox lining pinned to his swaddling. Upon this bit of card had been written one word, scratched awkwardly in charcoal:
With that word he was named. The fact was officially sealed with its entry into the grand ledger that all foundlingeries possessed, and which gave all foundlings the family name of Bookchild.
In the warren that was Madam Opera's, Rossamund often hid himself away from the taunts and snickers that he still endured from the other children. He would lose himself in his favorite books and pamphlets, reading them avidly. He dared to dream that there could be a better lot for him beyond the marine society's corroding walls, and let his head fill with scenes of battles, and marauding monsters and the mighty heroes that conquered them. He might have trouble remembering the Hundred Rules of Harundo, but the things he discovered within the dogeared pages of his precious readers would stay with him forever.
Soon enough, Verline returned. She slid discreetly along the creaking wood, her great tent of many-layered skirts making their telltale rustling. The high ceiling bounced the hissing echoes softly back till the room was filled with the gentle susurrus of her passage. He was certain she floated with her feet some inches off the floor and, to him, this added to her virtue. In his tiny world, Verline was Rossamund's favorite. She was short and slight, her earth-dark hair hidden beneath the white cotton bonnet that female servants wore. She adored ribbons and bows, and even the plain, workaday clothes she wore had several knotted here and there, the biggest being a great white knot made from her apron straps, tied in the small of her back. Within the crook of her left arm, and wrapped in a cloth, she held a small porcelain crock. From it putrid, mustard-colored fumes boiled and evaporated in the close air of the dormitory, leaving a bad stink.
Befuddled as he was, he still recognized the yellow steam and rank smell. Birchet was a torture masquerading as a cure.
Verline extracted a turned ladle from one of the many pockets in her white apron. She swilled about in the crock with this and brought it out filled with what he knew would be the most disgusting muck he would ever have the unhappy luck to swallow.
"Now hold your nose and open your mouth," she told him sternly.
Pinching closed his nostrils, and squeezing shut his eyes, Rossamund opened his mouth. Verline spooned the restorative potion as best she could into the tiny hole he had reluctantly made of his lips. Rossamund's whole head instantly flared with the fires of a thousand burning lamps. His nose was filled to bursting with the stinging stench of the mangy armpit of a dead dog, and his nostril hairs withered like straw on a fire. He was certain that cadmium-colored steam was squirting from his ears. Just when he thought he could stand it no more, the burning-bursting subsided and left him feeling well and whole.
He burped a little yellow bubble. "Thank you, MissVerline," he gasped.
Verline told him to rest, that she would be back with a jar of water. She left again, and before she returned Rossamund was asleep.
MADAM OPERA'S ESTIMABLE MARINE SOCIETY FOR FOUNDLING BOYS AND GIRLS
The great Skold Harold stood his ground. His comrades, his brothers-in-arms, had all fled in terror before the huge beast that stalked their way. This beast was enormous and covered with vicious, venomous spines. The Slothog-the slaughterer of thousands, the smiter of tens of thousands. The gore of the fallen dripped from its grasping claws as it came closer and closer. Struggling beast-handlers were dragged along as the Slothog strained against its leash.
The battle had been long and bloody. Ruined bodies lay all about in ghastly piles that stretched away as far as the eye could see. Harold had fought through it all. His once-bright armor was bruised and dented beyond repair. With great heaviness of heart he checked his canisters and satchels: all his potives were spent-all, that is, but one. It would be his last throw of the dice. He fixed the potive in his sling and, taking up the Empire's glorious standard, cried, "To me, Emperor's men! To me! Stand with me now and win yourself a place in history!"
But no one listened, no one halted, no one returned to his side to defend his ancient home.
Alas, now, the Slothog was too close for escape. It paused for a brief and horrible moment. Slavering, it regarded Harold hungrily with tiny, evil eyes. Then, with a bellow it shook off its panicking handlers and charged.
With a cry of his own, lost in the din of the beast, Harold swung up his sling and leaped…
"Young Master Rossamund! What rot are yer readin'?"
Fransitart, the dormitory master of Madam Opera's Estimable Marine Society for Foundling Boys and Girls, stood over Rossamund as he sat in a forlorn little huddle, tucked up in his rickety bunk. A great red welt showed on his left cheek and right down his neck. Gosling had done his work well.
The boy looked sheepishly at Master Fransitart as he pressed the thin folio of paper he had been reading against his chest, creasing pages, bending corners. He had been so taken by the tale that he had not heard the dormitory master's deliberate step as he had approached Rossamund's corner down the great length of the dormitory hall.
"It's one of them awful pamphlets Verline buys for yer, bain't it, me boy?" Fransitart growled.
It was the old dormitory master who had found him those years ago: found him with inadequate rags and rotting leaves for swaddling, that tattered sign affixed to his tiny, heaving chest. Rossamund knew the dormitory master watched out for him with a care that was beyond both his duty and his typically gruff and removed nature. Rossamund did not pause to wonder why: he simply accepted it as freely as he did Verline's tender attentions.
The foundling nodded even more sheepishly. The gaudily colored title showed brightly on the cover:
He had woken a little earlier, after recovering from his dose of birchet, to find the pamphlet sitting on the old tea chest that served as a bedside table. Every second Domesday, when Verline was given a little time to herself, she bought them for the children from a shady little vendor on the Tochtigstrat. Today was Midwich-the day before Domesday. This particular issue must have been brought to him as a special comfort, and Rossamund had snatched it up eagerly.
The dormitory master folded his hands behind his back. "What will Master Pinsum think of me findin' ye readin' these things again?"
Master Pinsum was one of Rossamund's instructors. He taught the foundlings matters, letters and generalities-that is, history, writing and geography. Rossamund found it endlessly fascinating that, whenever Master Pinsum declared this about himself, he would wave his right hand theatrically, as was done in gala-plays, and rrrrolll his R's with equal drama.
"I'm not much for me letters, as ye know, lad," Fransitart continued, with a cheeky twinkle in his eye, "but Master Pinsum 'as led me to thinkin' that readin' these 'ere pamphlets will shrivel yer mind. Let's just say 'tis a good thing ye're recuperatin' from th' beatin' that spineless-braggart-of-a-child Gosling gave ye-else I might 'ave to consider con-fer-scatin' that there folio." He rocked back on his heels and regarded the luminous cover. "What's this 'un about, me lad?"
Rossamund grinned. "The Great Skold Harold, Champion of the Empire and Savior of Clementine!"
"Ahh." Fransitart stroked his clean-shaven chin. "Ol' 'Arold, is it? Slayer of a thousand monsters in th' Battle of th' Gates, Savior of th' Imperial Capital? That were a powerful long time ago-a bit of ancient 'istory. Wonder 'ow true that version ye got there is, though?"
"Why wouldn't it be true?" Rossamund looked horrified.
Fransitart shrugged. "Per'aps 'cause fabrications are easier to sell and more entertainin' to read." He leaned in a little. "Or per'aps it's a bit o' propaganda for th' skolds, so we'll like 'em better."
"Well, I already think skolds are amazing! Would you want to be a skold, Master Fransitart? I wish that I was… that-or a vinegaroon, of course."
For over fifteen centuries skolds had fought the monsters, so Rossamund had been taught. Indeed, they had made it possible for civilization to endure. They made and used all sorts of powerful, strange and deadly chemicals to slay monsters or drive them off. They also sold many of these potives and concoctions to everyday folk, allowing them to stand against the monstrous foe as well. Skolds were deeply respected, but they were also thought strange and-it was said-they usually stank of the very chemicals in which they trafficked. Though Rossamund had seen many, he had never been close enough to confirm this reputation.
"A skold? One of those dark dabblers makin' all those dangerous smells and vile potions just waitin' to go boom in yer face? Wanderin' about, confrontin' all th' beasts and nasties out there?" The dormitory master gestured vaguely. "I be thinkin' not." He sighed. "Folks needs 'em to keep all manner of nasties away, I grant ye, but a skold will spend their days out in th' wild countryside where only their cunnin', their chem'stry and th' cut of their proofin' stand between their next meal and an 'orrible, gashin' end! I've 'ad perils enough in me life and prefer to spend what's left of it safe in these 'alls, behind th' city's many walls. And ye'll 'ave dangers a-plenty when ye go to serve on a main-ram. A-skoldin's not for me, lad, or thee either, if ye know what's right fer ye."
"Would you rather be a lahzar, then?" Rossamund ventured, already knowing the answer.
Of strange people, lahzars were thought the strangest. Able to do wonderful, terrible things because of secret surgeries done on their bodies, they too fought monsters. Some even said they were better at this than the skolds. There were two kinds of lahzar: fulgars-who could make sparks and flashes of electricity; and wits-who could twist and squash minds, and could sense where monsters and even people were hiding. No one knew exactly whence lahzars had come, but for the last two centuries they had made a profound difference to teratology-the proper term for monster-hunting. Skolds were bizarre, but lahzars could be frightening-almost as frightening as the beasts they fought.
Fransitart squinted and sucked in a breath. "Abash-me, lad, now I'm certain ye're goadin' me! To let a butcherin' surgeon go carvin' into yer rightly ordered gizzards and guts… What's the use of it? I'm with th' skolds-they were doin' a fine job of th' killin' and th' slayin' and th' lordin' over we lesser folks for centuries afore them lahzars came along. Give me a skold over a lahzar on any given day, bless me eyes!"
Nickers and bogles were the names most folk gave to the monsters: nickers for the bigger ones, bogles for the smaller, though this rule wasn't fixed. Rossamund closed his eyes as he tried to imagine a lahzar battling with some giant nicker.
The dormitory master sat down on the end of Rossamund's sagging cot, rousing him. Fransitart gave the boy a serious look. "I 'ave 'ad to share cabin space with a few lahzars in me time, yer see: both th' lightnin'-graspin' fulgar and head-blastin' wit…"
"You have?" Rossamund sat up. He had heard many of the dormitory master's tales, tall and true, but Fransitart had never told him this before. "What were they like, Master Fransitart? Did you see the marks on their faces? Did they fight any monsters?"
"Aye, I 'ave, and aye, their spoors on their foreheads were clear, and aye, they did fight with as many nickers as they found and did many worse things too… and after each meeting I was always mightily glad to be free of their comp'ny."
Fransitart looked at his feet for a moment. Rossamund wondered what he was remembering.
"They are strange," he went on finally, "and th' unnatural organs within their bodies that make 'em so strong make 'em crotchety, feverish! Many a queer thing I 'ave seen, but nothin' quite so wretched as a lahzar made sick by 'is organs." He stared intently at Rossamund. "My masters, lad, neither thee nor me wants to become one of them. Stick to a vinegaroon's life-'tis a good, 'onest way to chance yer fortune."
"Well then, tell one of your stories," Rossamund persisted, his pamphlet forgotten for the moment, "of when you were a sailor upon the seas. Tell me about the Battle of the Mole, when you were saved by that white-haired fellow. Or when you fought against the pirate-kings of the Brigandine! Or when you captured that Lentine grand-cargo as a prize!"
"Nay, nay, me boy, ye know 'em mostly already, especially them there second two…" The dormitory master lapsed into silence.
Rossamund became quiet for a moment too, inspecting an illustration of Harold battling the Slothog on a page of his pamphlet. In the drawing the skold looked as if he was about to be trampled.
The boy looked up at his dormitory master shyly. "Master Fransitart…" he ventured. "Have you ever killed a monster?"
For a moment, Fransitart seemed almost angry at this question and Rossamund immediately regretted asking it. Old salts like the dormitory master could be very touchy about their past, and it was proper never to ask but always wait to be told.
With the deepest sigh, the saddest sound Rossamund had ever heard Master Fransitart give, the fury passed. "Aye, lad," he said hoarsely, "I 'ave."
A thrill prickled Rossamund's scalp.
The old man closed his eyes for a moment, and did something the boy had never seen him do before: he took off his long, wide-collared day coat and laid it neatly on the end of another cot. Fransitart rolled up the voluminous sleeve of his white muslin shirt, exposing much of his pale left arm. He bent down a little to show his gauntly knotted bicep. "Look ye there," Fransitart growled.
Wide eyes went wider as the boy saw what was shown: made from swirls and curls of red-brown lines was the small, crudely drawn face of some grinning, snarling bogle. A pointed tongue protruded obscenely from a gaping mouth, and its eyes were wide and staring horribly.
A monster-blood tattoo!
People were only ever marked with a monster-blood tattoo if they had fought and slain a nicker. The image of the fallen beast was pricked into the victor's skin with the dead monster's own blood. The stuff reacted strangely once under the skin, festered for a time and left its indelible mark. The boy looked agog at his dormitory master. He already had deep respect for the old man, but now he regarded him with an entirely new awe.
"Master Fransitart!" Rossamund hissed. "You're a monster-slayer!"
Most folk would be bursting with pride to bear such a mark. Fransitart just seemed ashamed. "As things be, Rossamund, th' creature I killed did nought to deserve such an end and, though me shipmates boasted me an 'ero, it were a cowardly thing I did, and I am sorry for it now."
Rossamund's astonishment grew. How could killing a monster be cowardly? How was it that Master Fransitart could be ashamed of being a hero?
To kill a monster was a grand thing, almost the grandest thing-everyone knew that. People were good. Monsters were bad. People had to kill monsters in order to live free and remain at peace. To feel sympathy for a bogle or to take pity on a nicker was to be labeled a sedorner-a monster-lover! — a shameful crime that at the very least had its perpetrator shunned, or stuck in the pillory for weeks or, worst of all, executed by hanging.
How many secrets did the dormitory master have? Was he a secret sedorner? Rossamund went pale at the notion.
The more serious Master Fransitart became the quieter his voice. He was almost whispering now. "Hearken to me, me lad! Not all monsters look like monsters, do ye get me? There are everyday folks who turn out to be th' worst monsters of 'em all! There's things I needs to tell ye, Rossamund-strange things, things that might appear shockin' on first listenin', but ye're goin' to need to begin to git ye head about 'em…" Something caught his attention. The dormitory master shut his mouth with a sudden click and quickly pulled down his shirtsleeve.
A moment later Verline entered at the far end of the long dormitory hall.
Master Fransitart gave Rossamund a look that said Not a word of this to anyone.
Surely he was about to tell him the whole shocking adventure! Now that he had been interrupted, the dormitory master might never finish telling what he thought such an obviously terrible-maybe even shameful-secret. What dark mysteries could Fransitart possibly have to tell that made him so hesitant to speak them out? Rossamund doubted he would ever have the courage to ask him to venture on the subject again. The boy had never regretted Verline's presence or thought of her as intruding-but right then, he came close.
The parlor maid was bearing a bright-limn-a lantern holding phosphorescent algae that glowed strongly when immersed in the special liquid within-and approached with an open smile. With a sinking heart, Rossamund discovered that she was once again carrying the crock of birchet.
"A good evening to you, Dormitory Master Fransitart," she said softly, with a dip of her comely head.
Fransitart nodded his typically grave and silent greeting, straightening the broad collar of his coat.
Verline put the bright-limn on the tea chest. She waggled the turned ladle at Rossamund seriously. "Time for another spoon of birchet, dear heart. Master Craumpalin has kept it warmed especially for your second dose."
Rossamund once more submitted to the cleansing fires of birchet. Once more he endured its agonies and came out the other side restored. With another belch of bubbles, he thanked Verline.
She smiled. Putting down the crock beside the bright-limn, Verline felt his forehead with a small, cool hand and peered at his bruises. "I think you are mending nicely, dear. Glory on Craumpalin's chemistry! The swelling is definitely going down. But then you have always mended quickly."
The dormitory master made an odd sound in his throat and then looked at Rossamund gravely. "Aye, Craumpalin knows his trade. I reckon, tho', that even 'e would agree with me in recommendin' that th' next time Gosling takes a shy at yer skull, Rossamund, ye duck! Th' best salve for a wound is to avoid ever gettin' one."
The foundling looked down at the cover of his pamphlet, sheepish once more. "Aye, dormitory master," he answered softly.
Fransitart put a gentle hand on Rossamund's bruised head. "Good lad…" he growled, with an almost tender smile. "Right, time fer supper!"
Rossamund struggled into his evening smock, a shapeless sack with sleeves that all the children wore to dinner or supper.
"Master Fransitart, what will happen to Gosling?" he asked.
Fransitart frowned. "That li'l basket will be skippin' tonight's food and 'as been set to cleanin' out th' second salt cellar, th' buttery and th' shambles. I'm just off now to inquire as to 'is progress. Pro'bly not done 'im any sort of good! Pro'bly blamin' everyone else and excusin' hisself, as typical! A riot of ettins could do nought more than us to get th' wretched child to mend 'is errors." He shook his head. "That's enough on that. Off ye hop, Rossamund. Say yer prayers and clean yerself afore th' meal. I will see ye in the dining hall."
Though he was sure that she had not meant it so, as he had left the hall Rossamund overheard Verline say quietly, "What a dear, sensitive boy," and Master Fransitart rasping in reply, "Aye, too sensitive and too earnest for 'is own good. It'll be trouble and agony to 'im all 'is life if 'e don't get shrewder and tougher, just mark me. I can't watch out for 'im all th' time."
The boy brooded as he followed the narrow passages with their many doors, flaking walls and damp smells. By bewildering turns and many short flights of stairs that went down, then up, then down once more, he went first to the basins and then to the dining hall. How might he be shrewder? How might he be tougher? How might he avoid this future of trouble and agony that Fransitart foresaw?… And how might he get his dormitory master to finish the telling of those strange and shocking things he dared not speak in front of Verline? Madam Opera's Estimable Marine Society for Foundling Boys and Girls was situated on the Vlinderstrat, between a rat-infested warehouse and a stinking tannery. The Vlinderstrat had once been a rather fashionable avenue in the rather fashionable suburb of Poeme, in the proud riverine city of Boschenberg. The building itself was tall and narrow, made of dark stones and dark, decaying wood, sagging under the many additions to its original structure. It had been in Madam Opera's family through a great list of generations. Rossamund had heard this list read out once, and it went on so long he fell asleep during the telling.
A hundred children who had once been unwanted or lost or both lived here to be taught a trade and skills so that they might be wanted as adults. And the organization that wanted them most was that seemingly bottomless sink of manpower-the navy. It was the Boschenberg Navy that sponsored the running of this marine society and several others. It was the Boschenberg Navy that provided the foundlingery with its masters, men like Fransitart and Craumpalin, each one an aging vinegaroon pensioned off to serve the few days left to him as an instructor to discarded children.
Every marine society boy and girl was taught to long to join the navy. It was widely known that a fellow could set himself up for good with the prize money won when pirates or enemy vessels were captured; that you joined a family when you joined the crew of a ram (a very appealing idea to the foundlings at Madam Opera's); that every landlubber thought you were a grand chap for serving your state so honorably; and that you were better paid and better fed than most folks doing similar work on land. Rossamund was no different: he too had learned to desperately want a life on the vinegar waves.
The vinegar waves. The thought always made him wistful.
Though he had never seen the sea, Rossamund knew that its waters were tainted with caustic salts that gave it lurid colors and made it stink like strong vinegar. He could hardly wait till the day when he got to fill his lungs full of the sharp odor of the sea.
The navy was not the only employer of marine society boys and girls. Other agencies happily took on Madam Opera's children: the army, with its smart uniforms and regular mealtimes; the mathematicians, with their numbers and demand for genius; their rivals, the concometrists, who measured the length and breadth of everything; and various miscellaneous trades and guildhalls seeking apprentices or workers.
The agents arrived to make their selections at a set time in a year. The hiring season started in the early weeks of Calor-the first month of summer, the first month of the year. It ended in the last weeks of Cachrys-the second month of autumn, before the weather became unfriendly for easy travel. This was a time of great anticipation and glee, the older children always eager to make good their escape, the middle children keen to become the top dogs of the foundlingery and the younger ones excited simply by the atmosphere of expectation and change.
Rossamund had watched it happen many times already over the years, but this year it was his turn to take part; yet for some inexplicable reason, each time the hiring agents had come, he had been passed over. He did not know why and no one said; the agents just came, reviewed a lineup of all the older children, asked questions of the masters and Madam Opera and read out the tally of their choices. He knew he was not very tall or impressive-looking, like others around his age. He also knew that he was clumsy, that he had trouble tying the knots Master of Ropes Heddlebulk taught, that there were times when his mind would wander and duties be left incomplete. Yet Rossamund did know a thing or two. Not only had he learned simple dispensing from Craumpalin, but he knew a good deal of history too.
The Emperor ruled all that mattered, and the Emperor's Regents had control of the scores of ancient city-states that made up the Empire, city-states like Boschenberg, clinging to the coasts and fertile places. It was an Empire founded sixteen hundred years ago by the great hero-empress Dido, although the current dynasty-the Haacobins-were usurpers and not of Dido's line. Rossamund had read of the many battles on land and sea. City-states warred with each other and with their Imperial master for yet more control. He knew of soldiers-musketeers, haubardiers, troubardiers and the rest-and especially about the great rams (giant ironclad vessels of war that prowled the vinegar seas, their decks congested with mighty cannon). He knew the names of famous marshals, legendary admirals. He had read of the skolds, of course, and had even seen a few of those who had served his own city. He was fascinated by the lahzars.
But most of all he knew about monsters. He knew that there was an Everlasting Struggle, the ever-present battle between humankind and the bogles and nickers and the nadderers-the sea-monsters. Much of what he read grandly declared that humankind was winning, that the monsters were in steady retreat, that one day they would be exterminated from all the Empire. Yet occasionally Rossamund read some article nervously suggesting that in fact the bitter fight 'twixt man and bogle was at best locked in stalemate, at worst that humankind was losing. A terrible thought-people driven into the sea by slavering, relentless terrors.
Yes, Rossamund did know a thing or two, yet six times now this hiring season, men from the navy board and other agencies had been around to review the hopefuls. Six times now children had been selected to go and lead adventurous lives, so many now that the eldest and most of the second-eldest were gone, never to return. Six times now Rossamund had been passed over. One of the eldest children in the foundlingery he might now be-if still not one of the tallest-but this was little compensation for the shame of being left behind. He had been left behind by Providence-knows-who as a baby, and now, it seemed, he was being left behind again.
He was certain that he could not stand yet another year stuck in the cramped halls of moldering wood and old, cold stone.
Gosling too was waiting to be chosen for work outside the foundlingery. It was his only chance to achieve all the things for which his high birth had destined him-as he often boasted. In the last five months child after child had been selected to take up his or her long-awaited occupation, but not Gosling. In a raging sulk he had set about a regime of spiteful pranks, most failing owing to Fransitart's shrewd vigilance. But it was Rossamund he specially tormented.
Two weeks after the incident at harundo practice, Gosling somehow found him reading a small book about rams. Rossamund had hidden himself away in the tiny garret library of sagging wood precariously extended from the roof of the main building. It was all but forgotten by most. Dust was so thick on the floor that Gosling had been able to sneak up behind Rossamund and poke him as hard as he could. Rossamund was not startled: he could always smell Gosling well before he saw or even heard him.
"Whiling away the hours, are we?" Gosling snarled, unhappy that he had failed to spook his victim. He snatched away Rossamund's reader and made to ruin it.
Rossamund had played this game before. He simply folded his arms and frowned.
"Preparing to go abroad aboard your precious rams, eh? Fat lot of good reading these has done!" Gosling leaned right into Rossamund's face. "Don't think you're any better than me, m'lady. You're still here too! No one wants you." Gosling stood straight, his arms folded and his nose in the air. "My family will be coming back for me soon, you'll see. Then I'll show you who's better." Gosling had been saying this ever since he had been taken into the foundlingery. His expression took on an even nastier curl. "Not even old Fransi-fart will make you feel better then, when you're left behind and watching me go back to the quality I was born to!"
"Do not say his name like that…" warned Rossamund.
"Or what? Or what?! What a fine bunch you and he would make-Rosy Posy and ol' Fransi-fart! What a stink!"
Rossamund scowled. "He treats you as good as anyone-and better than you deserve! Call me what you like, but leave your betters out!" As true as it might be, this sounded lame even to Rossamund, and had no effect at all on his tormentor.
"He's a pocked-faced old ignoramus, and when Mamma and Papa come back for me, I'll get them to buy the whole stinking, tottering place and then kick him and the rest out to rot! Or…" Gosling finished with a malicious grin, "burn this all down to the cellars!"
Rossamund was speechless. He glared and spluttered. He failed to defend the honor of his dormitory master, or Verline or anyone else.
Gosling swaggered off, sneering and making noises like a baby. "Oo, I'd better stop. Madam Rosy is going to make me eat my nasty little words. Oo…" Just before he disappeared through the warped wooden door, he hurled Rossamund's reader at him. Rossamund ducked, but it still managed to glance his left cheek.
That's the last time! Rossamund vowed to himself. Days gathered into weeks. Rossamund despaired utterly of ever receiving an offer of employment. Then, with the end of the hiring season three weeks gone, and the cold month of Lirium well under way, an official-looking stranger arrived at the foundlingery. He was shown about the institute by Madam Opera. News of the arrival and the tour flashed around the foundlingery more quickly than the burst of a skold's potive. While sitting alert in Master Pinsum's matters, letters and generalities class, Rossamund spotted the stranger watching proceedings from the door, giving the distinct air of seeing all and missing nothing.
When gaps in his duties allowed, Rossamund continued to watch the stranger furtively, silently nursing his urgent, yearning hopes for a new life of adventure and advancement. He observed Gosling doing the same from a different vantage. Perhaps here was someone with an offer of employment for one of them? Perhaps for both? Perhaps, on this very ordinary midautumn afternoon, one of their lives was about to change forever…
But after the seventh bell of the afternoon watch, it was Rossamund who was summoned to Madam Opera's rather large, riotously cluttered boudoir-cum-office.
Gosling would not be pleased.
THE LAMPLIGHTERS' AGENT
Down many well-trod flights of creaking, wobbling wood or frigid, slippery slate stairs Rossamund went, through the all-too-familiar narrows of the foundlingery's halls and passages, all the way down to the emerald-painted door of Madam Opera's downstairs apartments. Children were normally summoned to the madam's sacred apartments only when in the worst kind of trouble.
Rossamund's head spun. Am I in trouble after all? Was it just chance that this stranger happened to be there? He stood in the musty parlor before the green door, where all comers were to wait until summoned.
Tap, tap went his boyish knuckles on this hard wooden portal. He was let in immediately by the manservant Carp. Within, the madam sat like some august queen, almost obscured by the piles of loose papers, ledgers and registers that rose in clumsy stacks upon either side of her solid blackwood desk. Her chestnut hair had been knotted high into a hive of snaking coils. She had clearly gone to some lengths with her appearance. The stranger was there, standing silently by the desk. He wore a dark coachman's cloak that hid all other attire, even his boots, and he held in his hands an excessively tall tricorner hat of fine black felt known as a thrice-high. There was something wrong with his eyes. Not wanting to be caught staring, Rossamund flicked his attention between Madam Opera and the stranger's distracting orbs.
"You sent for me, Madam Opera?" Rossamund croaked in a small voice, bowing uncertainly.
The madam beamed at him. This was unnerving. She rarely beamed. "I did, my dear boy. Come closer, come closer." A hand waved at him, the handkerchief it clasped fluttering like a small white flag and filling the small office with the scent of patchouli water. "Today is a very important one for you, young master Rossamund." Madam Opera glanced almost coyly at the man alongside her, as though they shared a special secret.
Rossamund felt his heart beat faster.
"Mister Sebastipole here has come as an agent all the way from High Vesting, and has declared that he would very much like to meet you." Madam Opera stood, an action which made the stranger straighten automatically. "Mister Sebastipole, I would like you to meet young master Rossamund. Young master Rossamund, Mister Sebastipole." She curtsied as she offered these greetings, her arms stretching out to encompass her two guests.
The stranger nodded, the corner of his mouth twisting slightly. "Rossamund. What a-ah-fine name for, I am told, a fine lad."
Adults were often remarking on his name, and it was by these reactions that instinctively Rossamund would gauge a person's trustworthiness. Had he not been unsettled by the stranger's eyes he might have thought this Mister Sebastipole was subtly mocking him. Rossamund dared one quick, determined stare. A thrill spread through his entire body: the man's eyes were completely the wrong color! What should have been white was bloodred, and his irises were the palest, most piercing blue. This man in front of him was a leer! "Mister… S-S-Sebastipole." Rossamund bowed awkwardly. For a moment he could hardly think: everything he knew about these men was now tumbling through his brain in much the same confused way as the Hundred Rules of Harundo. Leers were trackers, trackers of men, and even more so of monsters. They drenched their eyes with forbidden chemicals to enable them to see into things, through things, to spy on hidden things, to tell even if a person was lying.
Rossamund gulped. Unable to help himself, he looked surreptitiously for the man's sthenicon. He was fascinated by them, and longed to try one on. It was a rare thing to meet a leer in the city, and Rossamund had certainly never encountered one before. What could a leer want with me?
This fellow had come from High Vesting, Madam Opera had said. High Vesting was one of Boschenberg's colonies and the harbor of her naval fleet. Perhaps this terrible-eyed stranger worked for the navy. Rossamund tried to quell the rising excitement that threatened to overwhelm him. Oh, to become a vinegaroon-that was his heart's desire!
Madam Opera continued gravely. "Now, Rossamund, Mister Sebastipole is here to offer you a chance for employment-an opportunity I understand you very much desire. I want you to take his proposal seriously and consider well what a fine offer this is. Please go on, sir." She waved her hand ingratiatingly.
Mister Sebastipole cleared his throat and narrowed those intense eyes. "Well, young master Rossamund; I have come to represent my masters in Winstermill and High Vesting, who in their turn represent their masters, who represent their master-that is, the Emperor himself."
Rossamund was impressed. Somehow, he could tell that Mister Sebastipole had meant him to be.
"I am told you are quick of eye, good with letters and know a little of the chemistry," the leer continued. "Would you agree this is so?"
Rossamund hesitated. This did not quite sound like the navy. "I… I suppose I would, sir."
Mister Sebastipole continued. "Very good. You see, our Imperial charge-handed even from the great Imperial Capital of Clementine itself-is the care, the maintenance and clear passage of one of our Most Imperial Master's Highroads: the Conduit Vermis, which follows its course from Winstermill through the Ichormeer-that some call the Gluepot-and on eastward to far-famed Worms."
Rossamund blinked. This definitely was not the navy.
"I have come to offer you the employment of a lifetime-that is, to work the lamps with us and tread the paths of this great highway to keep it safe for all happy travelers. In short, we would like you to become a lamplighter. I am pleased to say that this good lady, Madam Opera"-he half turned his body and gave the slightest bow toward the woman-"agrees you would be excellent for the job."
Something about the way the lamplighter's agent said all this sounded very final.
Rossamund's head was spinning once more. A lamplighter? They wanted him to become a lamplighter? What happened to the navy? Now he would never see the sea…
"Um…" Rossamund tried his best to look grateful. "I… ah…" This was not the plan at all! Stuck on the same stretch of road day after day, night after night, lighting the lamps, dousing them again, lighting them again. No chance for prize money. No chance for glory. Could it get worse? He had no choice. It was either become a lamplighter or stay at the foundlingery. A glance at Madam Opera showed her genial expression becoming stiff with impatience. He was stuck between two very unpleasant choices-the stone and the sty, as Master Fransitart might say.
"Thank you, Mister Sebastipole," he managed, giving another awkward bow.
"As you should!" Madam Opera beamed and clapped once and loudly. Nothing about Mister Sebastipole's face altered at all. He clearly had not anticipated the slightest resistance to his suggestion. Madam Opera stood and shepherded Rossamund toward the door. "Go and ready yourself. Fransitart will know what to do… Now, Mister Sebastipole," he heard her murmur as she closed the door behind him, "you will stay for a sip of tea?"
And that was that.
The necessary arrangements were made. Rossamund was to meet Mister Sebastipole in two days' time, at the Padderbeck, one of Boschenberg's smaller piers upon the mighty Humour River. His luggage was to be limited to no more than one ox trunk and a satchel. He was to be dressed in hardwearing clothes for a long journey, and a sturdy hat too. Unfortunately, he did not have any. Nor did he possess a suitably sturdy hat. As for the rest of his belongings, the collection of his entire life-they fitted neatly into two old hat boxes. For the rest of the day and all through the next, interested staff of Madam Opera's Estimable Marine Society for Foundling Boys and Girls, the Vlinderstrat, Boschenberg, were a-bustle as Rossamund was prepared for his great going forth. Even the madam herself joined in, drawing up a list of what he needed, entitling it Rossamund's Necessaries.
Masters Fransitart and Craumpalin took Rossamund to see Gauldsman Five, the gaulder. His was the best place in this part of the city to get clothing sturdy enough for Rossamund's journey, for Gauldsman Five made the best proofing. All proofing could turn sword strokes, and could even stop a ball fired from a musket or pistol. The simplest piece of proofing was costly, but the better the quality of protection the higher a garment's price. Proofing was, however, also absolutely necessary for folk looking to venture beyond the city walls, where monsters and brigands and other horrors waited. It was made from cloth-anything from hemp to silk-treated with a chemical potion known as gauld, which made it very hard to tear or puncture. Broad straps of gauld-hardened leather and thin padding of soft, spongy pockweed were then sewn into the lining as the unproofed cloth was turned into garments. After this the whole array was soaked in gauld, and then cooked and soaked again and so on. Each gaulder had his own methods and process, and his own secret recipes. Rossamund thought it almost too wonderful to believe that he might be getting such amazing clothing for his very own. He was speechless with glee as he left the marine society.
Gauldsman Five's shop and fitting rooms were a whole suburb away, in the Mortar, on Tin Drum Lane, and the visit there would be a little adventure in itself. Indeed, any excursion from the foundlingery was a significant event. Rossamund had been out from Madam Opera's only a dozen times in his whole life, usually to go down to the Humour with the other foundlings to practice rowing and swimming. In fact, before today, his most thrilling excursion had been a trip to the house of Verline's sister Praeline in the shadows of Boschenberg's outermost curtain wall.
Fransitart, Craumpalin and Rossamund went north along the Vlinderstrat, turned right onto the Weegbrug and then left onto the crazily curving Pantomime Lane. They strolled past alehouses, dance halls and puppet stalls, veered right once more onto the Hurlingstrat, dodging ox wagons and omnibuses, went through the Werkersgate and there, on the left hand, was Tin Drum Lane. Gauldsman Five's establishment was about a third of the way along, tall and narrow like almost every other building in Boschenberg. Only those of quality were allowed in the front of the shop, where there were plush closets in which the wealthy and powerful could try on and admire their new proofing. Such ordinary folk as two marine society masters and a foundling had to use the poor man's closets by the great gaulding vats at the rear of the shop. As they entered this filthy place, Rossamund watched greenishorangey-yellow steam hiss angrily from one of the vats as an aproned man poured in a thick black liquid. A foul miasma churned in the dank air.
Fransitart spoke quietly but urgently with some grimy fellow, who spoke to another grimy fellow, who spoke to another, and before long a finely dressed man in a powdered wig appeared from a door leading to the front of the shop. Though his simply cut clothes were made of expensive materials, he had a splotched and haggard look about his face-the mark of a vinegaroon. He was one of Gauldsman Five's tailors. Fransitart must have known him and, from his look of consternation, the tailor must have known the dormitory master too.
"'Ello, Meesius," said Fransitart, a terrible light in his eye.
"Coxswain Frans?" Meesius the tailor went pale. "Is that you? And… and with Craump'lin too?"
Coxswain? Rossamund had always thought Fransitart had been the gunner-in charge of all the cannon and their right firing.
"Aye"-Fransitart nodded gravely-"I've come to claim me debt."
Tugging on the bristles beneath his lower lip, Craumpalin gave the tailor a knowing wink and flashed an almost threatening grin. "Lookee, Frans," he said softly, "he still knows us!"
Meesius the tailor went even paler. "A-after all these years…?"
"Aye." Master Fransitart was as quietly menacing as Rossamund had ever known him to be. "But I wants it in harness. Bring us yer best travelin' wear for this 'ere lad."
There was an awkward pause.
Rossamund was bemused that his two masters could be such overbearing rogues.
With nervous sweat on his brow, the tailor hesitated.
Craumpalin folded his arms and glowered. Fransitart remained perfectly still.
Meesius cleared his throat. "W-well." He gestured to Rossamund impatiently. "Come over here so I can get thy measurements."
Rossamund looked at his masters, and Fransitart gave the subtlest nod. The boy went over to the tailor, leaving Fransitart and Craumpalin by the vats.
"Lift thy arm!" Meesius growled under his breath. With a leather tape he measured Rossamund's neck and arms and even the girth of his chest with many rough proddings.
"… I daren't keep him back any longer." Master Fransitart's voice carried softly across the vat-room floor.
"Ye dare not. And anyway, the lad is desperate to get on."
"Aye, Pin, aye." The dormitory master sounded resigned and strangely sad. "Well at least 'e'll be stoutly protected."
At this both of the old men went quiet.
Meesius disappeared for a time, then returned with a sour look, bearing two pieces of high-quality proofing. The first was a fine proofed vest with fancy silk facings and linings called a weskit. The second piece was a sturdy, well-gaulded coat-called a jackcoat-made of subtle silken threads of shifting blues. It came in at the waist and flared out to the knees. Rossamund was stunned at its beauty.
The dormitory master told him to put on both the weskit and the jackcoat. "Ye might as well start getting accustomed to their weight," he said.
They were a little too big for Rossamund and heavier than normal clothes, but combined with his recently washed black, long-legged shorts-or longshanks-he looked very fine indeed and could be sure he was well protected for his long journey. All he needed now was a sturdy hat.
"Yer debt is cleared, Meesius," Fransitart said, low and serious. "I 'ope we will never 'ave th' need to meet again!"
Without another word the tailor hurried off into the shadows beneath the vats. Rossamund and his masters returned the way they had come. Fransitart looked very satisfied with himself as they wrestled and veered through the jostling throng on their way home.
"Ye've got yerself a stout set of proofing there, lad. A fine harness, indeed." The dormitory master's smug grin broadened. "Ye'll be well safe in it."
Craumpalin chuckled. "Masterfully done, Frans, masterfully done. Ol' Cap'n Slot would 'ave been impressed."
Rossamund had no idea what just happened. He had never seen Fransitart so satisfied, so pleased-but he was too astounded at his grand new proofing to give any of it another thought. Verline mended his two shirts and even his smallclothes. She darned several pairs of especially long stockings-called trews-which he was to wear doubled back down from the knee for improved protection. Two scarves and two pairs of gloves were provided against the coming cold of winter. She also gave to him his own turnery (a fork and a spoon made of wood), a biggin (a leather-covered wooden cup with a fastening lid), a mess kid (a small wooden pail from which to eat his meals) and a flint and steel for the lighting of fires.
From the larder Rossamund was allowed to put into his satchel a block of cured fungus known as dried must, a whole loaf of rye bread, a pot of gherkins that sloshed and plopped quietly when it was moved, three rectangular slats of portable soup (hard black wafers ready to be boiled down to a bland but nutritious brew), some fresh green apples and, for energy or emergencies, fortified sack cheese.
Traveling papers were arranged for him: a letter of introduction from Madam Opera recommending Rossamund as a fine and useful boy; a waybill, or certificate of travel, giving him permission to move through any land or city-state of the Empire; a nativity patent to prove who he was and where he came from; and finally a work docket, upon which his conduct would be recorded in whatever job he was employed. This impressive wad of documents was put into a buff leather wallet along with (he could hardly believe his eyes!) folding money to the value of one sou-an advance of his monthly wages-and the Emperor's Billion. This was a shining gold oscadril coin given as an incentive to all those entering the service of their Imperial and Pacific Lord. Rossamund gaped at all this money that was apparently now his.
Old Craumpalin contributed too. The dispensurist supplied several flasks and tiny sacks, declaring them to be medicines to "invigorate both thew and wind"-by which he meant body and soul-and repellents to "fear away the bogles and nickers." Rossamund already knew the medicines-he'd seen them before-small milky bottles holding evander water, marked with a deep blue? to show what they contained, and beneath that the tiny letters C-R-p-N — the dispensurist's mark. The repellents, however, were new.
"Beware the monsters, me boy! Ye've been safe in here all yer life, but out there…" Craumpalin gestured vaguely. "Out there it ain't safe. They're everywhere, see, the nasty baskets. Big or small, they're as mean as mean can be, so just keep these potives safe and handy and ye'll go right-though I have to apologize to ye for them not being of as fine a quality as a skold brews." The dispensurist pointed to a cobalt vial. "Right! This here is tyke-oil. It don't smell like much to us, but it's good for keeping monsters away, right off. A healthy smear on yer collar and they'll stay well clear of ye. Problem is, it also lets them know ye're there, so don't go applying it willy-nilly, only when ye think they've got yer scent."
Then he gingerly poked at one of the many little sacks kept within a bigger purse. Though the smell coming from them was faint, it was still unpleasantly sharp. Rossamund hoped he never suffered a faceful of it.
"These are bothersalts.Very nasty stuff, and the sacks are fragile, so have a care. It will give any bogle-or person, for that matter-you happen on a nasty sting if you throw it at them, bag and all. Frighten them off for hours, but it also makes 'em angry, so be on yer guard for a good long while after. And this! This is a pretty bit of trickery!" Craumpalin unwrapped a package of oily paper to show a large lump of malleable skin-colored wax. An odor something like a very sweaty and unwashed person filled the air.
"It's called john-tallow. Smells a wee bit off to us, but it's a mile more appealing to the nose of a nicker than we are… leads them astray. Poke a little lump of this in the bole of a tree or under a rock, walk in the other direction and ye'll get yerself some space." He chuckled into his white beard. "Wonderful stuff. A warning, though: always handle it by the oiled paper. If ye get the stuff on y' hands-or anywhere else come to that-then ye'll stink of it too and the ruse will be ruined. Got it?"
As the dispensurist kneaded the wax, Rossamund found that, strangely, he liked the smell. He said nothing of this and took in all he was told very carefully, very seriously, imagining a world beyond the city's many curtain walls and bastions filled with all kinds of frightful beasts.
Craumpalin lifted up a bottle of brown clay. "This here be fourth and last," he said. "It's a nullodour-I like to call it Craumpalin's Exstinker. Master Frans and me wants ye to wear a splash of it on ye all the time, no matter. Keep ye safe from sniffing noses-where ye're going there's no knowing where is safe and where ain't." The old dispensurist took up a long strip of cambric. "The best way to wear it is to liberally apply some to this here bandage, then wind it about yer chest, just under the arms like so." He wrapped the strip about himself several times in demonstration. "A good splash will do for a day and seven will last you almost a whole week. After that I recommend you wash this and reapply more of me Exstinker.Tomorrow mornin', when ye be getting yerself ready, we wants ye to give this seven splashes and put it about ye just like I've shown. Understood?"
Rossamund nodded somberly. Anything to keep the monsters away.
Craumpalin grinned. "Good lad!" He handed Rossamund the brown clay bottle along with a piece of paper. "There's enough in there to last ye for a month. After that, give this script to yer local, friendly skold-make sure he's friendly, mind-to make ye more."
Along with all these things Rossamund took his most treasured possession: a lexicon of words and a simple peregrinat-or an almanac for wayfarers-entitled Master Matthius' Wandering Almanac: A Wordialogue of Matter, Generalisms amp; Habilistics, that is, history, geography and science. Cleverly, it was waterproofed, both cover and pages, so as to be useful to any brave and literate traveler no matter what the weather. It had been a gift one year ago, given on Bookday, when the foundlings at Madam Opera's remembered the entry of their name into the grand ledger-a type of group birthday, and the only time their existence was ever celebrated.
Fransitart appeared in the afternoon with a valise of shining black leather.
"Thank you." Taking hold of it, Rossamund was at once struck by the bizarre sense that whoever had made the case had intended good things for its owner.
It had a lock, and a key that was fixed to a strong velvet ribbon of brilliant scarlet about Rossamund's neck.
The astounding array of Rossamund's new equipment was then rechecked and finally packed by Master Fransitart, who stowed everything wisely so that it would not rattle or knock when moved. Remarkably, the valise did not weigh nearly as much as he expected it might when it was fully packed.
Rossamund urgently wanted to ask Fransitart to finish the telling of the fight with the monster and the secret things, the shocking things beyond and behind this. He had the courage now that so little time was left until he departed, but Verline did not leave them alone long enough for him to venture a question.
"I know ye weren't thinking to be a lamplighter," Fransitart said unexpectedly, "but not ev'ryone who studies law becomes a lawyer, lad. Things may change for ye yet. Paths need not be as fixed or as straight fo'ward as they might first show." He looked hard into Rossamund's eyes. "Now ye've got to be especially wary out there, me boy. Ye get me?"
Rossamund nodded slow and sad.
"Most ev'ryone is not goin' to be as understandin' of ye as Verline here, or crusty old Craump'lin or meself," the old sea dog continued. "Guard yeself, pick ye friends cautiously and always keep wearin' that brew ye got from Craump'lin. He knows his trade better than most-it will keep ye well protected." Fransitart sniffed. "Take me words to heart, son. It's a wild and wicked world beyond here and I'm loath to let ye out into it. But out ye must go, and ye've got to be sharp and wise and keep yeself from trouble. Aye?"
"I will, Master Fransitart, I will," Rossamund said with all the earnestness he could muster.
The dormitory master took something out of his pocket and passed it to the boy. It was a long and thin-bladed knife in a blacked leather sheath, a tool much like the ones Rossamund had seen fishermen use when cleaning their catch on the stone-walled banks of the river.
As he gave the knife, Fransitart fixed Rossamund once more with a serious eye. "Out in the world a knife is an 'andy thing to 'ave. Mark me, though! If ye must use this 'ere in a tussle," he said, wagging his finger, "then make certain ye means to, or else it'll get taken from ye an' used upon yeself instead!"
Rossamund nodded, though he did not really understand. He had no intention of using the knife for anything but the cutting of food.
To his dismay, Rossamund was made to have another bath, though he had had one only two days earlier. "Make you nice and fresh for your great going forth, young man," Verline declared as she sent him to the tubs. Smelling like lemongrass soap, he returned to the dormitory. As all the boys were piped to bed, Weems and Gull, two of the next-oldest, who would be leaving themselves next season, and who always did things together, teased him for his flowery smell. Rossamund just shrugged. Tonight would be the last time he would have to put up with them.
Restless with dreams and worries of what was to come and a keen suspicion that Gosling might try some horrid final prank, he slept little that night.
Finally, at the start of the morning watch, Rossamund was roused by a silent Fransitart. He followed the dim guide of the dormitory master's shuttered bright-limn and bid good-bye, with one lingering look, to the dormitory. Snores and whimpers and sighs replied in unconscious, uninterested farewell.
So this is what it feels like to be leaving for good, he marveled.
Master Fransitart left him at the basins to wash his face and put on all the fancy new things that were waiting there for him. He was especially careful to apply one-two-three-four-five-six-seven splashes of Craumpalin's Exstinker to the cambric bandage. Seven days' worth. He wound it tightly around his chest just as the dispensurist had shown him before donning the rest of his attire.
In the dining hall he found a breakfast of rye porridge with curds-and-whey and sweetened with honey. A lantern sat on the side to light his last meal at the foundlingery. It was as fancy a breakfast as he had ever had, and it spoke of Verline's care. He was just a little sad as he ate alone, the tap of his spoon against the bowl echoing in the lonely dark. Verline's love would be hard to live without, but at last he was getting out!
With the early glow of approaching dawn showing through the high windows, Fransitart returned. He came into the dining hall carrying Rossamund's satchel and valise.
"Time to be going, lad," rasped Fransitart, his voice sounding pinched and strange.
Rossamund followed him to the vestibule by the front door where Madam Opera waited. Standing before the front doors, Rossamund was granted his baldric. A leather-and-cloth strap that went over the right shoulder and looped by the left hip, it was given to all lads when they were declared to be passing from boyhood into manhood. Typically it was marked with the mottle-the colors-of one's native city. This one was patterned in sable and mole checkers-that is, a checkerboard of black and brown, the mottle of Boschenberg. Master Fransitart, solemn and still silent, put it on Rossamund and, that done, plonked a handsome black thrice-high upon his head. At last he was completely equipped.
Madam Opera grimaced tightly. "You do look well set up-perhaps too well," she added with a sidelong glance at Fransitart. She gave Rossamund a single pat on his head. "Step forward strongly, boy, like the hundreds have done before you. This world does not reward tears. Time to be on your way."
Rossamund wrestled on the valise, fixed his new knife to his new baldric, slung the satchel containing the food, turnery, the biggin and the repellents and the rest across his other shoulder, and pocketed his purse of small coins.
Master Fransitart held Rossamund by the shoulders. "Good-bye, lad," he said at last.
"Good-bye, Master Fransitart," Rossamund whispered. "Tell Miss Verline and Master Craumpalin good-bye," he added.
Madam Opera made a small disapproving noise, but Fransitart smiled and replied, "I surely will, lad. Now! Step lively, new duties await ye!"
Rossamund took up his old stock and the peregrinat, doffed his hat as he thought a man might and stepped reluctantly out into the foggy autumn dawn.
As he turned to go on his way, he caught a glimpse of some of the children who remained, woken early and watching from the high windows of the foundlingery. Among them was Gosling. Rossamund was certain he would be fuming with silent jealousy.
Good riddance, he thought.
He followed the Vlinderstrat toward Hermeneguild and the river district, quickly reaching the point where tall shops and high apartments obscured Madam Opera's Estimable Marine Society from view. His heart swelling with sharp, nameless regrets, he joined the dawning hustle of Sooningstrat.
ON THE HOGSHEAD
Mister Sebastipole was waiting as he said he would be, standing in the fog at the top of the Padderbeck Stair. He was wearing his telltale coachman's cloak and black thrice-high. He had his own satchel hanging across his body together with an oddly ordinary-looking box on a thick strap. Rossamund tried not to stare at the box. Inside it would be the leer's sthenicon. He had expected it to be much more unusual, and he was just a little disappointed to see that it was so very plain and ordinary. Sebastipole had been holding a small portable clock or some other such device when Rossamund arrived, and now secreted it away.
"You are late, young fellow," he stated flatly. "A lamps-man's life is punctuality-'twould be best to start forming that habit soon, don't you think?" There was no ire in Mister Sebastipole's voice, just honest, unself-conscious reproof. Rossamund had never encountered anything like it before.
"Uh… Aye, sir," he puffed and set the valise down.
"Well, at least you have come lightly packed. Bravo."
The lamplighter's agent pulled out an oblong of sealed paper and another of folded paper. He handed the sealed paper to Rossamund first, saying, "This is my endorsement to our mutual masters." He gave him the folded paper, saying, "These are my instructions to you and to those who will meet you at the other end. Stow the first safely and read the second carefully." The lamplighter's agent folded his arms and stared with his disturbing eyes. "Your first destination is High Vesting and from there a fortress known as Winstermill. It is a manse, the headquarters of we lamplighters. You will be escorted thither from High Vesting. Your instructions say as much." He squinted. "Hark me, now! Do not dally on your way, but make directly to Winstermill, for my superiors are awaiting you and others like you to begin your 'prenticing. Agreed?"
"Aye, sir." Rossamund carefully stowed the precious documents in his buff leather wallet.
Mister Sebastipole took out his little clock again, opened it and pursed his lips. With a snap of its lid, he declared, "Well, the sooner you start, the sooner away." The leer pointed Rossamund toward steps that went down from the high wall of the canal-side street to the Padderbeck itself. The fog had become almost impossibly thick. Rossamund could barely make out the tottering buildings festering on the other side of the narrow canal, their brooding window-lights of red and green showing only faintly.
"Down there-though you probably cannot see for all this fume," the lamplighter's agent continued with a frown at the muggy air, "down there along this very pier you will find a certain Rivermaster Vigilus waiting to take you aboard his cromster, Rupunzil. The vessel is sound and your way is paid."
Rossamund could see nothing but fog in that direction. "Ah… Aye…"
Mister Sebastipole gave a surprisingly warm smile and bowed. "Well, lad, the moment of departure has arrived, it seems, so I shall bid you a safe journey and leave."
Rossamund was stunned. The lamplighter's agent might not have been the friendliest chap, but such a prodigious journey as that upon which Rossamund was about to embark was, surely, better done with the leer's company than without.
"I… I thought you'd be coming too?" he ventured.
Mister Sebastipole smiled again. "I have other tasks to attend to here in Boschenberg. You will see me again some day not too distant, I'm sure. Just head down the stair and along five berths. A lamplighter's life is independence of thought and deed, my boy. You will need to get used to this as soon as possible. Welcome to the lamplighters!" With that the leer bowed again and walked back up Sooningstrat. Mister Sebastipole waved once from the top of a rise in the street and, with a turn, was gone.
Just like that, Rossamund was on his own. Uneasy, he took up his valise and took the stairs down to the river. The fog was still too thick for him to see his destination. He passed a great post thickly painted white-a berth marker-appearing suddenly out of the gloom, then two more.
As the fourth emerged from the soupy morning vapors, he spied a vessel moored there-or the shadow of one at least. As he approached, the outlines of the craft became clearer. It was indeed a cromster, though one in very poor repair, sitting dangerously low in the water. It did not look at all steady or sound to Rossamund, rather it looked ready to founder even in the calm of the Humour. He frowned. The foundling had not lived so closeted a life that he had not seen dozens-even hundreds-of cromsters plying the mighty river. None of them came close to luxury, but all of them were in far better repair than this tub of rivets.
Cromsters, like most other ironclad river craft, sat low in the water, with a hull and keel that did not descend too deeply into the murky wash. This was necessary since rivers, even as large a stream as this, were much shallower than any sea, but Rossamund was sure that this one sat just a little too low. If the water lapped this near to the gunwale in the calm of a river, surely it would be spilling over it in great washes when the craft encountered even the smallest swells of the most sheltered ocean bays.
As he came closer, Rossamund could see that mean, sickly-looking men were wrestling great barrels aboard the craft.
"Ahoy!" came a call, and a hefty shadow of a man rolled down the sagging gangplank to the pier. "Who might ye be, lubberin' about on th' pier in th' shadowy morning mists?"
Rossamund did not much like being told he was "lubberin'"-it was an unfriendly term seafaring folks used of those who were not. "I'm looking for Rivermaster Vigilus and the cromster Rupunzil!" he declared briskly.
The hefty shadow came closer and clarified itself as an unsavory-looking fellow, tall and thickly built, with broad, round shoulders and matted eyebrows knotting over a darting, conspiratorial squint. His clothes were shabby, though they looked as if they had once been of good quality. His dark blue frock coat, probably proofed, with overly wide sleeves, was edged with even darker blue silk and lined with buff. This garment came down to his knees and covered everything but a pair of hard-worn shin-collar boots. The man emitted a powerfully foul odor, and altogether gave Rossamund a distinctly uneasy feeling.
"And where might ye be from, young master," this fellow asked, almost sweetly, his breath proving even fouler than his general stench, "to need to see such a fellow and such a vessel?"
"I be Rossamund Bookchild from Madam Opera's Estimable Marine Society for Foundling Boys and Girls." Rossamund gave a nervous half a bow. "Rivermaster Vigilus is meant to take me to High Vesting." This stranger might have been smelly, but that did not mean Rossamund had to be rude.
The unsavory fellow seemed to hesitate at this, then gathered himself. "So ye're me lively cargo, lad?" he purred, giving a saucy wink. "Bit unfortunate about yer name, but there ye 'ave it. Still! Grateful to 'ave met ye all th' same." He bowed, removing his tricorn to show gray, greasy hair pulled back in a stubby baton. Patting his own chest, the captain continued. "I be Rivermaster Vigilus, yer ever so 'umble servant."
This comment on his name was certainly among the more blunt Rossamund had yet heard. Already low in his estimation, this fellow-this Rivermaster Vigilus-sunk lower still.
Obviously unconcerned, the rivermaster plowed on. "I'll get ye safe to yer next 'arbor. I've plied this awful river for many a long year and I knows 'er bumps and lumps like th' warts on me own rear!" He declared this so loudly that many of the crew chuckled or sneered. "Thank 'e, lads." He gave a swaggering half bow in the direction of the crew. "This is me crew-sons of a madwoman all!" With a vague wave of his voluminously sleeved arm, he introduced the several dozen bargemen busy loading awkwardly large barrels marked Swine's Lard into the hold. These fellows looked as rough and gruesome as their captain. Rossamund frowned at them and at the rusting vessel they worked.
What was Mister Sebastipole thinking? This lot would barely make it to the Axles, let alone all the way to High Vesting!
The rivermaster must have sensed his concerns, for he cleared his throat and said, "Aye, not th' lithest tub ye've seen, nor th' 'andsomest crew, I'll grant, but there ye 'ave it. She be me other vessel, ye see-me standby as I've 'eard it said. The poor ol' 'Punzil is laid up in ordinary with a great 'ole in 'er ladeboard side. Distressin' I tells ye, and costly too. But there ye 'ave it again." The rivermaster gave a sad sigh and Rossamund felt a certain sympathy for him. When a vessel was laid up in ordinary-that is, deliberately stranded out of the water for repairs-it was often a troublesome business. "Instead, this be the six-gun cromster 'ogshead," he continued. "She'll be our carriage to 'igh Vesting and our quarters till we get there. She's steadier than she looks and sound and able to go into all waters-fit enough to 'ave made th' voyage to 'igh Vesting and back ag'in many times, as sure as I'm standin' 'ere!"
Despite all these claims they did little to allay Rossamund's fears. He knew too much about how a vessel should be-a benefit of being raised in a marine society. He looked the Hogshead up and down and spied the figurehead for the first time, protruded from the bow. It was of a snarling pig, so corroded and neglected that it looked as if it was rotting. He thought the name Hogshead-which he knew was also the name for a large, cumbersome barrel-profoundly fitting. A laborer rolled by them such a barrel, which emitted an odor so powerful and foul it made Rossamund gag.
Pullets and cockerels! I hope I don't have to spend my trip next to them-whatever they are…
"I was told my fare was already paid?"
The rivermaster seemed to do a quick calculation, then said, slowly, "Aye, young master, that it 'as." He gave Rossamund a quick grin. "Welcome aboard!" He steered Rossamund up the gangplank and onto the befouled deck of the vessel. "I'll 'ave to be about me business now. We make off shortly. Settle yerself out o' th' way. May your cruise be as pleasant as th' Spring Caravan of th' Gightland Queen."
The cromster shuddered. Its gastrines, the engines of living muscles that would quietly propel her through the water, were being limbered-stretched and warmed ready for the hard work of turning the screw that pushed the Hogshead along.
Rossamund stood by the helm and waited with apprehension. He surely wished Mister Sebastipole had accompanied him. Things seemed a little too odd.
"Ready to go, Poundinch!" a sour-looking man called to the rivermaster.
"Poundinch?" Rossamund could not help but exclaim his thoughts. "Aren't you Rivermaster Vigilus?"
"Ah, aye… well… I am one and th' same!" The unsavory fellow rolled his eyes a little. He sucked in a breath. Then he said, "Poundinch is just another way of saying Vigilus, ye see. Different language, ye see, Tutin-like th' Emp'rer hisself speaks: 'vigil' is th' same as 'pound'; 'ilus' is th' same as 'inch.' Ye see? Me lads prefer the more comfortable sound o' Poundinch, is all. They says it so much I gets in th' 'abit of callin' meself th' same too… and ye can calls me it as well: Rivermaster Poundinch. How'd that be?"
Rossamund squinted. He knew almost nothing of the Imperial language-Tutin, it was called-but something sounded a little off beam.
The musty rivermaster raised an apparently conciliatory hand and gave a mildly wounded look. "It's all right, I won't be offended. I often gets people axing-'tis almost a habit for me to 'ave to explain."
Rossamund knew what it was to have a difficult name-to be misunderstood by it. He pressed the confusion no further.
"So, now we're all properly acquainted, let's 'eave to." Rivermaster Poundinch or Vigilus-whoever he might be-smiled, then called, "Cast 'er off, Mister Pike!" to his boatswain, who relayed the order with another yell. The rivermaster took up a speaking tube and hollered within, "We'll 'ave 'er at two knots, Mister Shunt!"
The pier men threw ropes, the bargemen pushed off and with further shuddering the Hogshead moved slowly out and steadily down the narrow channel. Rossamund quailed faintly with confusion, holding off an embarrassing, blubbering panic. Away from the bank wall of sandstone they went, away from the granite pier. Just like that, Rossamund was on his way-uncertain, and unhappily alone with this frightful crew.
The Hogshead slowly trod past the shadow of another cromster on its right. That it was in much better repair was obvious even in the murk. Rossamund squinted and took a step forward to see if he might read the other vessel's nameplate, but was prevented by fog and the bustling of the bargemen. Yet, just before the other cromster disappeared into the obscurity, he thought he saw someone pacing beside it, on the pier, as if waiting for something or someone. He could not, however, be sure.
The Hogshead moved on.
The channel was one of the many man-made tributaries that had been dug from the main flow of the Humour many centuries ago-running into and out of the city, flowing down valleys of brickwork. Buildings often went right up to the channel's edge, making the banks an almost continuous wall of drab bricks and dark stone in which streets and sludgy drains made deeply vertical gaps. Rossamund watched it all pass by in a silence of profound agitation. The Padderbeck Stair and its pier disappeared into the gloom.
"Now, me lad!" the rivermaster's voice boomed, offending the morning quiet, and startling Rossamund from his unhappy funk. "Do as I tells ye, and we'll be th' best of mates, matey. So find yerself a spot on th' prow and stay outta me way."
The foundling obeyed, sitting right at the front of the Hogshead. The crew left him alone, free to fret on his future, as they made their way out of Boschenberg. The cromster passed beneath a heavy arch of black stone, its portcullis raised and dripping with condensed fog, and went from the dim gloom of the city-channel into the pale murk of the open waters of the Humour. In the dark sepia waters before them was a lane marked with squat quartz pillars that glowed wanly in the vaporous morning. Rossamund had heard that these were made using an ancient and half-forgotten art, followed step-by-complex-step but little understood. The shadows of other vessels passed them by with faint thrumming hisses; ships' bells clung their warnings in the turgid damp.
In the middle of the river the Hogshead came about and went southward, going downstream. The fog began to thin, showing the sun low in the east, a bulging, bloodred disk. The cromster continued south, moving past mountainous onyx palaces, past grand villas and dark stately homes, past the wooden houses and low hovels, past even the Vlinderstrat and his old abode. Before them, athwart the Hogshead's path, was a massive rivergate that spanned the entire width of the Humour. The Axle. Tall it was, with pale granite turrets and many high arches held up by great columns and guarded by ponderous iron grilles that descended right to the muddy bottom. Heavily fortified bastions towered by either side of each arch and strong points filled with soldiers and forty-eight pounder long guns at every midpoint between. Over five hundred years ago the Axle had been built out from the city's second curtain wall to guard it from unwanted things on and in the river. All the traffic of the Humour had to pass through it, and to pass through meant you paid a toll. Rossamund had seen the rivergate several times before-though he had never passed through it-and it still amazed and daunted him. He knew very well that doing so for the first time was a deeply significant thing for a Boschenberger. It meant you were leaving the lulling, familiar security of your city, your home. It meant you were entering the broad wild places, where monsters harried and mishaps threatened. It meant your life changing forever.
Rossamund stared at the Axle in awe.
High above, musketeers in black and brown stood upon its solid battlements, vigilant wardens who strove to keep the city safe-whether from monsters or wicked men. The scarlet gleam of this eerie morning reflected from bayonets and musket muzzles. Graceful pennants of sable and mole flicked and snapped higher still above them all. Such a mighty and well-defended wall. What Rossamund found even more spectacular was that there was another Axle-the twin of this one-upstream, guarding Boschenberg's northern end. He felt a strange swell of pride for his city-state.
With a deep, near-silent thudding the Hogshead slowed, the screws pushing back against the flow of the old river. One of the many great gates in the Axle loomed. Contrary to Rossamund's pessimism the cromster had managed to make it there without sinking. It pulled up alongside the enormous base of one of the great columns that fixed the whole rivergate to the immemorial rock petrified beneath the slime of the riverbed. Part of the column's base was fashioned into a low, grimy wharf, and by this the Hogshead halted to have its cargo inspected and pay the river toll. A door of pale, corroded green opened out onto the wharf, and from it marched several excise inspectors dressed in the familiar brown and black of Boschenberg.
With a grin and a wink at Rossamund, Poundinch stepped off the Hogshead and held a conference with the most official-looking of all the inspectors. Rossamund sat at the prow of the cromster pretending not to listen, and listened intently indeed to the hushed conversation. Though he did not grasp all the baffling inconsistencies of adult ways, something about their communication suggested conspiracy.
"Such a pleasure to see ye again, Clerks' Sergeant Voorwind." Poundinch touched the edge of his thrice-high. He handed over the manifest of his vessel's hold and with it a little paper package.
"And good early morning to you, Rivermaster Poundinch," the official replied with a cynical grin. "What is your cargo this time?" He took the manifest and the little paper package with it, making as if to read the first while slyly pocketing the second.
Poundinch inclined his head. "Much th' same as it always is: seventy barrels of exceptional swine's lard bound for th' soap 'ouses and wax factories of th' Considine, m'lord, and ten bushels of parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme for th' perfumeries of Ives and Chassart."
"That far south! In this old bucket?" The clerks' sergeant raised an eyebrow. "I may have to charge you an additional fee. How exceptional are we talking?"
"Full and putridly ripe. It's took a great deal of 'ard work to get it delivered and just as much to load." Poundinch smiled smugly.
"And the young master by the tiller? He's not one of your deliveries, is he?"
Rossamund's spine tingled as he realized the clerks' sergeant was talking about him.
"Oh, no, no. I've taken on a cabin boy, see. Fetch and carry and such. Someone to learn th' ropes and take up th' trade, as ye like. 'E's well appraised of th' arrangements, never ye mind."
A cabin boy? Fetch and carry?
Rossamund held his breath. What was all this double-talk? Why did Rivermaster Poundinch not just speak the truth? Does he not know that I can hear him?
Clerks' Sergeant Voorwind frowned. "As it should be, Poundinch. We both know what happened last time you took on a cabin lad. This new fellow will most certainly incur another toll." He lowered his voice so that Rossamund had difficulty hearing what he said next. "Be warned, the Emperor has issued an edict expanding the bans on the dark trades. We won't trouble ourselves with it now, but next time you're through be expecting to pay an even higher fine."
Now it was Poundinch's turn to frown. "As ye like it, Voorwind," he said through gritted teeth. "Don't push us too 'ard, mind, or we might 'ave to push back."
"Careful, Poundinch!" the clerks' sergeant snarled quietly. "'Twould be an easy thing for me to reverse things as they stand. If you force me, I'll push right back again, with the authority of our beloved city-state." He took a step backward, his expression changing easily from open hostility to formal approval. "Very good, rivermaster. We'll complete our inspection, then you may go on your way."
Muttering imprecations into his creased neckerchief, Poundinch stepped back onto the Hogshead and waited there by the column's base for the clerks to finish their duty.
Rossamund was certainly ignorant of much of the conversation's true meaning, but his suspicions still churned. What were the "dark trades" that Voorwind fellow had hinted at? He found it hard to understand how it was that a man like Sebastipole-punctual, officious-had, it seemed, got him a berth upon a vessel of such poor conduct.
While the rivermaster and clerks' sergeant had been in conference, sturdy men had been looking the Hogshead over. They had descended the waist ladder into the hold-quickly reappearing with disgusted expressions on their faces-to scrutinize the bargemen's papers. Eventually a hefty, bespectacled clerk demanded to see Rossamund's own traveling certificates. The clerk looked very much as if he knew what to do should any document not meet his precise requirements. Rossamund stared up at him as he handed over his papers. It was like looking up at a solid brick wall. With a cursory scan the clerk returned his papers without a comment.
Fees paid and cargo and crew declared fit, the Hogshead was permitted to pass. The grille before them squealed and slowly moved aside. The vessel trod through cautiously. Once clear of the mighty Axle, it gathered speed and proceeded downriver, passing the third curtain wall of Boschenberg, then the outer curtain wall and the suburbs fenced in between. Beyond the city, farmlands, immaculately tilled and primly fenced, stretched away on both sides. Gorgeously white egrets stalked and crimson-legged water hens waddled about the banks among the sodden roots and falling russet leaves of tall sycamores, graceful elms and black, evergreen turpentines.
Rossamund stayed at his post right at the tip of the bow, where he read his instructions and his beloved almanac, and tried his best to avoid the crew, none of whom was proving very friendly. The instructions were brief and simple: he was to remain aboard the vessel till he reached High Vesting and, once disembarked, was to meet with a certain Mister Germanicus in the offices of the Chief Harbor Governor. From there Mister Germanicus was to assist the boy to Winstermill, the lamplighters' manse-or headquarters-where he would receive further instructions. At the bottom was a strange mark, "Seb," ending in a line with a squiggle, which he assumed was Sebastipole's mark.
That was all of it.
Rossamund read them over and over to see if he might have missed anything, hoping fervently that this mysterious Mister Germanicus would know how to find him, for he had no idea how he could find Mister Germanicus. Gleaning little, he sat back, leaning on a pile of hessian and hemp rope, fretting. From this position he could keep a close eye on the suspect crew-this Poundinch fellow most of all-and even be on the watch for monsters. Though he did not know what he would do if he found one, he still wanted to know if it was coming.
Occasionally he consulted his almanac. The maps showed that the Humour wended its way through many miles of apparently featureless regions-places the topographers had not bothered to name. They had marked instead, in the large blank areas on either side of the river, simple descriptions: "broad pastureland" on the east side, and "a great partial wilderness" on the west. They had also marked the Humour with its other names in parenthesis: "Humeur," "Swartgallig," "Sentinus"-names given by other races in other times. Only two places were noted along its course ahead of them. The first was Proud Sulking-a city like Boschenberg, of which he had some idea. The other was somewhere called the Spindle, positioned just before the Humour emptied into a large body of water to the south called the Grume. This was the enormous bay upon whose shores were noted many other cities and many other ports. He knew something of the Grume too, but what was the Spindle?
He rose and cautiously went to Rivermaster Poundinch to ask him.
"Been readin' th' charts, I see," Poundinch observed amiably. "Gets th' feelin' with all yer gawping at th' Axle, that ye tain't been out of th' city before. Am I right?"
"Only twice to visit the sister of… of a friend. She lives in Blemish, which is a tiny village just outside the walls." These had been most magical visits to the small cottage of Verline's younger sister, and Rossamund could not remember more wonderful times. He sighed. How he was going to miss Verline. He was determined to scratch down a letter to her when he arrived in Winstermill.
"Sounds quaint, lad. As for th' Spindle, well, it's another, further rivergate, just as menacin' as those Axles there." The rivermaster poked a thumb over his shoulder at the dark, shadowy line of the rivergate they had left behind. "But it belongs to a different city, that being Brandenbrass-which is moi 'ome, by th' way. Th' Spindle is about three days from 'ere, and after that, I will takes us out onto th' Grume. We then turn left, and travel east to 'igh Vesting. All up ye'll be with us for a little under a week."
He looked sidelong at Rossamund. "Been on a cromster before, lad? 'Cause, if ye like, when we is well clear of th' morning's fog, I can show ye about th' 'umble dimensions of me own vessel."
Despite his strong stink and his original gruffness, Rivermaster Poundinch now seemed a very friendly fellow, as pleasant as Rossamund could have hoped for.
"Aye, a few times, sir," he answered, "though I've not actually been on many craft, sir."
Of all the fascinating things about watergoing craft, Rossamund was fascinated by gastrines. These were large boxes in the bowels of ironclads housing great muscles that turned the vessel's screw-or propeller-and their limbers, which were much smaller versions of a gastrine that were used to warm up the greater. Without limbers the muscles of a gastrine would soon tear and bruise and seize up. "Could I see the gastrines, sir? I've been told they have to be mucked out every hour or they get sick."
"An' who told ye that?"
Rossamund's chin lifted as he answered proudly, "Dormitory Master and Ex-Gunner Fransitart, one of the masters of the marine society." Rossamund liked to use his dormitory master's full title, but he almost never had an opportunity.
"Frans'tart, eh…?" Poundinch frowned long and plucked at some rogue hairs on his patchily shaven chin. "I reckon I remember 'im-a terrerfyin' fellow, if me memory serves. Knew 'ow to get us to shoot straight, that's fer sure! Well, ye were told rightly, m'lad, an' I'd expect no less from Frans'tart."
"You knew Master Fransitart?" Rossamund was agog at this. "What was he like? Did you serve at the Battle of the Mole with him?"
"Aye, aye." Poundinch chuckled. "Only briefly, not nearly so long to know 'im well, but long enough to get a feel for 'im-and th' switch of 'is rod…" He muttered this last bit into his neckerchief, but the foundling heard it anyway.
"Didn't you like him, sir?"
"Aye! Oh, aye! Ol' Poundy likes ever-ry-one. I find it's mores a matter of who likes ol' Poundy. Frans'tart was as fine a petty officer as a navy or th' ladies could ev'r want!"
Ladies! Rossamund had sometimes wondered if there had ever been a Goodlady Fransitart. "Was he married, sir?"
Poundinch guffawed. "Oh ho! No, there was no wife that I knew of. He weren't like th' marryin' kind to me. Now that's enough on 'im, lad. Let me con-cerntrate on th' steerin' for a bit, an' then we'll take ye to 'ave a peep at them there gastrines."
Remaining by the rivermaster, Rossamund tried to imagine Fransitart plying his old trade with noble vigor and cavorting with the refined ladies of lofty and fashionable courts. How strange it would have been to see him pacing the decks of some great ram bawling orders stoutly amid the smoke and terror of a sea battle. The kind of sea battle Rossamund was never to get a chance to see. He had his new trade, far inland. He thought again about Sebastipole's too-brief instructions.
"Aye, lad?" Poundinch looked down at him.
"Would you know where the"-Rossamund frowned as he read aloud from the instructions-"the 'offices of the Chief Harbor Governor' are?"
"Er… I gather ye're meaning in 'igh Vesting?"
"Well, most cert'nly, I do. Need to be shown to 'em, when we get there, do ye? Ol' Poundy can do that for ye in a trice!"
Gratified and relieved, Rossamund doffed his hat and bowed to the rivermaster-as he had seen men in the streets do-and said earnestly, "I am most obliged to you, sir."
Poundinch burst with powerful laughter, sweeping off his own hat and returning the formality. "Why, 'tain't nothin', me good sir."
The Hogshead proved more solid than she had first appeared, pushing sturdily through many of the submerged snags that hindered their progress. Rossamund was informed that the fifty-odd crew slept on the upper deck-right down the middle of the vessel, between the guns-and, as there was no room in the hold, he would be expected to do the same. He did not mind, for the hold was more cramped than the marine society and stunk horribly of pigs, sweat and other worse unnameable things. There were no cabins upon the flat, flush upper deck except for the hold-way about halfway down the vessel, a low boxlike structure with doors which opened onto the ladder that descended into the hold. There were also the twelve bull-black twelve-pounder cannon in staggered rows down either side and taking up a goodly amount of room. Six cannon were in a line on the steerboard or right side and six down the ladeboard or left side of the vessel. Rossamund admired them.
Despite his anxieties, he found that he was actually excited to be on his first real voyage-the movement of the cromster in the water, the bustle of activity and the routine of the watches, the silent throbbing of the gastrines. The Hogshead was no oceangoing ironclad, yet it was much more thrilling than the small craft on which Rossamund had made day trips in the past.
In map-reading classes back at the foundlingery, he had been taught about the oceans-the vinegar seas. He had been taught that they were a rainbow of different colors: reds, greens, azures, yellows, and black-shown on the charts as the Pontus Nubia. These lessons made him long to see the sea, and now that he was almost upon such waters, he sorely regretted that an oceangoing life was not to be his.
By the third bell of the middle watch the fog had lifted sufficiently for Poundinch to trust the course of the Hogshead to Mister Pike and make good on his offer to show Rossamund the gastrines. The ladder creaked frighteningly as the rivermaster led him down into the hold. It was painfully cramped below deck. Poundinch stooped low and even lower to pass beneath the beams. The stench of the place made Rossamund's eyes water. He never thought anything could be so putrid, so foul. He was determined to make a brave showing, however, and pressed on. The rivermaster did not seem to mind, or even notice.
Poundinch waved vaguely to the forward parts, where the barrels were lashed and obscured with canvas tarpaulins. "No need to be showin' ye that, just filthy ol' swine's lard. It's aft ye wants to be-follow me, lad, and see all th' wonder of this beauty's gastrines."
Rossamund followed and there they were-the gastrines. His sense of disappointment was much the same as when he had spied Sebastipole's sthenicon box. As that device was just a small ordinary box, so these gastrines were just very large, ordinary wooden boxes bound with copper-but at least these were big. They almost reached the planking of the deck above. Running down either side of them were much smaller boxes of hardwood, two on each side for each gastrine. These were the limbers. From the top of each rose great cranks and several many-jointed shafts that pivoted perpendicularly and entered the side of the gastrines. They were still now, the limbers not being in use. With such a crowd of machinery there was barely enough room to press along the grimy, curving inner walls of the hold to pass. Rossamund was amazed at the sturdy pulsating of the muscles within the gastrines; he could sense it in the air all about as they squeezed past, feel it powerfully in the planks and beams beneath his feet and at his back. What surprised him most was the warmth that came from the great brass-bound boxes, a sickly heat which made the rotten air of the hold thick and clinging. In a cramped space at the stern they met a wizened man in an apron surrounded by a complicated array of levers, his long, thin white hair dripping in the humidity. He looked up at the rivermaster with a silent, surly question in his eyes. Poundinch introduced him to Rossamund as Mister Shunt the gastrineer. It was the gastrineer's task to feed, muck out and care for the gastrines, make sure they were always limbered properly and keep them in good health. He ranked highly in a vessel's crew.
"Hello, Mister Shunt, sir," said the foundling.
Shunt the gastrineer ignored him.
"Well, there ye are." Poundinch patted the nearest box. "These be gastrines. Not much to look at, eh? But a powerful sight more constant than a sailing vessel, and no mistake. I'll leave ye with dear ol' Shunty 'ere, so's he can talk technicalities with ye. Come straight up when ye're done, mind-no dalliancing about down 'ere."
The rivermaster retreated.
Rossamund carefully pressed a hand against a gastrine. It was most certainly hot, like the brow of someone in a fever. The mighty throbbing of the muscles working within transmitted up his arm, and he felt his whole body bump-thump, bump-thump in sympathy. He admired the powerful-looking levers, many of which were half as tall as him again, each one governing certain actions of the gastrines and limbers. He looked to the gastrineer with a smile.
"Git!" cursed Shunt.
"Ah… aye! Sorry, Mister Shunt, sir, I…" Rossamund pulled his hand away from the side of the box.
The gastrineer rolled his eyes horribly. "Git!" he grated again, stabbing a hand at the foundling.
Rossamund blinked in surprise, then realized with horror that there was a weapon in the man's hand-a curved and cruelly barbed dagger. He had never been threatened with a real weapon before. It was enough to send him stumbling back up the ladder and running back to his couch of canvas at the bow.
"I see's ye've got yerself well acquainted with our darlin' gastrineer," chuckled Poundinch as Rossamund fled past him.
Rossamund refused to do anything so embarrassing as cry-though he very much felt like it and might have once. At that moment, hugging his knees to his chest and scowling back any tears, he would rather have been back in the foundlingery's suffocating halls.
With the dark of his first night aboard descending, Rossamund decided to sleep at his original station at the prow on a pile of old hessian and hemp distinct only from the other piles of old hessian and hemp as stinking less. No one objected, and so he settled in for sleep. If it rained he would rather get wet than endure the disgusting hold.
The night passed mercifully dry, yet dreams of a knife-wielding Shunt, the incessant clanging of the watch bells and the stomping of the crew's bare feet kept Rossamund from restful sleep. By the ringing of the morning watch at around four o'clock, he gave up on the prospect of proper rest and was rewarded eventually with a beautiful, brilliant pink sunrise.
Red dawning, traveler's warning, he thought gloomily.
The Hogshead was now clear of Boschenberg and its jurisdiction and roaming an ungoverned stretch of the Humour.The land on the eastern side of the river remained flat open pastureland. Upon the west it was becoming more rolling and rocky and decidedly more wild-looking. Such places were known as ditchlands, the borders between everymen's kingdoms and the dominion of the monsters. Rossamund could well imagine bogles and nickers prowling about the stunted trees and ragged weeds, seeing who they might devour.
As the day progressed, Rivermaster Poundinch ignored everyone and contributed little to the running of the vessel. Occasionally he would growl a command, but usually he lounged silently at the tiller, his chin in his chest as if he was dozing.
Rossamund was taken by loneliness. At that moment, alone among all these self-interested cutthroats, he would have welcomed even Mister Sebastipole's stiff manners and disturbing eyes.
Poundinch came alive suddenly at the end of the forenoon watch and the beginning of the afternoon when dinner was served by the taciturn, sour-faced cook, and again when there was gunnery practice. Early in the afternoon watch, when the river seemed clear of other craft, he roused himself and bellowed, "Right, lads! Gunnery practice! To yer pieces!"
A bosun's whistle was blown and the crew hustled to the six cannon on the ladeboard side of the Hogshead. Poundinch strutted at the helm post, bellowing orders, directions, abuse. "Run them out, ye mucky scoundrels! Come on, Wheezand, I've seen me grandmamma, rest her, move faster than ye, and she's been a-molderin' in th' ground these last ten years! And I should know. I put her there meself!" At this he gave a bloodcurdling chortle and many of the crew joined in.
Rossamund chuckled nervously with them, eagerly awaiting what he hoped would be a spectacle. He had always wanted to see the cannon worked. The foundlings of Madam Opera's had never been allowed near one, regardless of their training in the naval crafts. Suddenly he realized that there were benefits in leaving the foundlingery and its strict policies after all.
BOOM! One after the other the pieces were fired, at a rotten stump or anything that happened to be passing by-the smaller the better, to improve the bargemen's aim.
For Rossamund it was indeed both thrilling and deafening, and completely distracted him from his anxious woes.
Boom! went the guns once more, the crash of their firing hitting him with a thump right in his chest, each blast filling the air with creamy, fizzy-smelling smoke that billowed and lazily drifted away. The whole vessel shuddered with each cannonade, while across the other side of the Humour great vertical splashes were thrown up, or part of a tree would collapse, sending cattle fleeing from the riverbank.
After the fourth broadside, the crew were piped to cease and routine resumed. Rivermaster Poundinch went back to his languor and Rossamund remained alone at the bow, humming within in boyish joy at what had proved a spectacle indeed. That evening was clear and bitterly cold. A three-quarter moon was rising, swollen and yellow in the dark green sky. Muffled in his scarf, his jackcoat buckled right up, Rossamund lay belly down on the deck of the bow and stared at the black water. For some time, he had been listening to the loud concert of a thousand frogs all singing along the banks and watching a small, pale shape dashing upon the water's surface. At first he thought it was a weak reflection of lunar light playing on the bow wave but, as two bells of the second dogwatch rang, it moved oddly, darting out away from the vessel then back again. The hairs on Rossamund's neck bristled and a shimmer of terror thrilled through his belly. He stared as the pale shape broke the surface-it was a head: a pallid lump, unclear in the jaundiced light, showing a long snout full of snaggle-jawed teeth. Its glittering black eyes rolled evilly and fixed him with a terrible gaze. His first monster…
Rossamund had enough wit to grope for his satchel, which he never kept far from him. Perhaps now was the time to use one of his precious repellents. Just as he gripped the strap, the pale lump in the water gave a long bubbling snort and disappeared under the bow and away to the right, toward moon shadows and the root-tangled bank. Rossamund shook with fear. He did not move for a long time but just lay staring at the right bank, trying to blink as little as possible for fear that the pale beast would spring upon him in ambush from the water. His horror was heightened when a gurgling howl rang in the dark. For Rossamund it was pure terror. Among the crew, however, it caused but a minor stir and nothing more.
For the second night, curled up tight in pungent hessian, Rossamund got little sleep.
… AND OFF AGAIN
The next day, when Rossamund mustered the courage to tell Poundinch of the previous night's pale monster, the rivermaster showed little alarm, or even interest in, the sighting.
"Just one of those things, me boy, and nowt to trouble yerself over." The rivermaster stroked his scabrous chin for a moment, pondering. "River's full o' strange but 'arm-less surprises. Be takin' my word on that 'un-ol' Poundy knows these waters."
As the day progressed they met many vessels going upriver, and were even overtaken by a faster-moving cromster with a smartly dressed crew. These fine fellows hailed the bargemen of the Hogshead, who only sneered and returned the brisk greeting with sullen looks.
A bargeman coiling rope near Rossamund told him off for waving vigorously as his own reply. "Fancy-lad good-fer-nothin's," the crewman growled. "Reckons they're better than us…"
Rossamund could not help but wish Sebastipole had found him passage aboard the other vessel.
In the afternoon, clouds black and blue blew up from the southeast-a hint of the bitter winter to come-making the day dark and the evening even darker. Downriver a city built on the east bank of the Humour came into view, its many lights already shining in the untimely gloom. Rossamund consulted the almanac. Proud Sulking it was called, the major river port of the vast farming region known as the Sulk and a bitter rival of Boschenberg. It had become rich from the many merchants who wished to avoid the stiff tolls of the Axles, and chose instead to pay the lesser port fees that Proud Sulking demanded. There they would unload their cargoes instead and transport them by ox-trains along the highroads and, through much danger, to their customers further upstream. In doing this, Proud Sulking made a jealous and bitter enemy of Boschenberg.
Proud Sulking was not nearly as large as Boschenberg, although its bastions and keeps and curtain walls along the riverbank were just as high and threatening. Its many wharves and piers were clogged and bustling with the vigorous activity of river craft, their crews and the laborers working ashore. Eager to avoid this foreign enemy city, Rossamund was afraid that the Hogshead would go about and enter the river port. Instead Poundinch steered her as far over to the opposite bank as was possible, and held his course there, with many a nervous glance over at the forbidding city. Relieved, Rossamund watched solemnly as the Hogshead passed Proud Sulking by.
With night closing in, the wind diminished but the clouds remained. The Hogshead was now many miles south of Proud Sulking and the land on both sides of the river became boggy and threatening: holm oak grew in squat, clotted thickets; bristling swamp oaks and sickly turpentines rose tall and stick-gaunt. This must be a monster-infested place. Here, surely, were the wilds that Fransitart and Craumpalin had spoken of with such awe and warning. Rossamund was convinced he could feel bogles and nickers prowling and spying.
When dark finally ruled, the Hogshead's stern and mast lanterns were inexplicably doused so that the cromster moved in pitch-black. Even the binnacle lamp that lit the compass by the tiller was hooded to show as little glow as possible. Rossamund knew that the lights on a vessel should never be put out: on a river or at sea, a ship without its lanterns lit in the night or a deep fog was a danger to all other rivergoing craft. Why would Poundinch do such a thing? Somehow Rossamund knew better than to ask. He certainly would not consult any of the crew. In the blind night he fought against sleep.
Despite his determination, he eventually succumbed and lapsed into a troubled slumber.
Sometime later he was woken by the sound of an anchor dropping. There was some quiet cursing, and Rivermaster Poundinch's voice scolded huskily, "Keep it steady, ye slop buckets! No noise!"
The cromster had halted near the western bank at a place neither remarkable nor distinct from any other part of the river's haunted edge. All hands were pressed to duty as smaller hand lanterns were lit and the Hogshead's only boat, a large jolly boat normally towed behind, was brought about to the steerboard side. The crew were nervous. They lugged up several foul-smelling kegs from below and lowered them by rope into the little craft. Bewildered, Rossamund listened to the thumps and quiet exclamations. He sat up slowly, hoping to avoid attention, and peered over the edge of deck.
Ponderously laden with barrels, the jolly boat was being rowed slowly to the bank. Poundinch was in the bow holding high a lantern with another fellow-Sloughscab, the Hogshead's own dispensurist; there were eight crew to row and two sturdy fellows sitting in the boat's stern holding primed muskets and looking alert. As it moved to shore the large rowboat became no more than the wan glow of the lantern and a silhouette of the activity within. Soon it disappeared altogether among the hanging branches and crooked, buttressed roots that knotted the riverbank. Rossamund saw, or at least thought he saw, the flicker of another lantern somewhere further in the trees. He could hear still the creaking of oars and fancied too the echoes of hulloos coming back across the water. For a time everything was still, waiting-even the frogs. There were no lights aboard and the limbers were even stilled. Little could be seen but a faint orange smudge striped with the indigo shadows of intervening trunks. Rossamund imagined that he was floating in the midst of nothing, drifting in an empty universe with just his thoughts and his breath.
A flicker from the bank interrupted his wandering notions.
A bright flash, half-hidden by the black shadows of tree trunks, was closely followed by the muffled but unmistakable popping of musket fire. The crew at once became agitated, and even more so when a loud crack snapped and echoed across the water. Quickly a dim lantern hove into view, indistinctly showing the jolly boat being rowed as rapidly as possible back to the Hogshead. There was a fizzing spurt and a brilliant flash, stark against the dark-another telltale eruption of a musket, fired by one of the sturdy fellows kneeling stiffly in the aft of the jolly boat.
The other sturdy fellow was missing. So was Sloughscab the dispensurist.
Rivermaster Poundinch was in the jolly boat's bow, bellowing, "Pull! Pull, ye cankerous pigs!"
Behind them whole trees shuddered and sagged. Cries rang out on board the Hogshead. The stern lantern flared into light and by its green glow bargemen hurried and panicked.
Rossamund stood, transfixed by the spectacle. Through parted trunks something enormous was moving. Rossamund could barely make out what it was: long of limb it seemed, yet hunched, pushing at the trees as if they were mere shrubs. It turned its head and Rossamund felt he caught a glimpse of tiny, angry eyes.
"Pullets and cockerels!" Rossamund exclaimed in a horrified whisper.
There was a loud yell.
Simultaneously, one of the cromster's cannon fired, the smoke of its discharge belching obscuring blankness over the scene. The small thunder reverberated, flat and hollow, all about the land, and as its fumes cleared, the giant thing was gone. Poundinch was now scrabbling back aboard his vessel spluttering foul language, crying for the anchor to be weighed and limbers turned. Poundinch said nothing about the affair. No reasons were given for the absence of Sloughscab or the sturdy musket-wielding chap, no explanation of what the giant on the shore might have been. The contents of the jolly boat-three box-crates emitting odd and disturbing sounds-were simply hurried into the hold. Normal duties were resumed. Those on watch rapidly got the cromster moving once more. Those off watch muttered grimly for a time and went to sleep.
Rossamund tried to sleep himself. He tossed the rest of that night over it, his head full of fear and pondering and repeating images of the nicker's angry eyes and the startling flash of cannon fire. Rising at the fourth bell of the morning watch, the foundling determined that all through the next day he would listen, as far as he possibly could, to every word spoken on board the Hogshead.
With the rising of the sun and the changing of watch, the crew exchanged meaningful glances with each other.
"Oi don't moind cartin' abowt bits o' bodies in them there barrels of pigs' muck," one filthy bargeman offered to another quietly at breakfast. "We're shorely paid noice for doin' it. But thowse things down thar now just bain't natural."
To this the second growled wordless agreement, then waggled his finger to ward off evil. "Right you are, right you are. Ablatum malum ex nobis," he said, "Rid evil from among us."
Later that day, Rossamund overheard one of the crewmen who had helped row the party ashore the previous night say to another, "We'd made the trade fine, but that thing must have been watching for a long time, 'cause we heard nowt of it till it come out all a-quick with a roar. Scatters the corsers with a big sweep o' its terrible arm-like this." He swung his own arm wildly, thoughtlessly letting his voice become louder. "And those that it hasn't smashed are off into the trees and ol' Poundy is pushing us back onto the barge while Cloud and Blunting have a crack at it with their firelocks and poor Sloughscab hurls his potions-you know how 'e's always wantin' to give 'em a good testing-well he got 'is chance, 'cause…"
"Gibbon!" It was the rivermaster. One eye was open as he lounged at the tiller and this single orb glared horribly at the loquacious crewman. "Don't give me a reason to remember yer name any further, me darlin' chiffer-chaffer."
At this Gibbon went pale and lapsed to silence, as did the rest of the crew. One thing that he had said kept spinning in Rossamund's head. "… Scatters the corsers." He had heard of these before. Corsers were folk who robbed graves and stole from tombs to make their living. The dark trades!
What did such wretched people as these have to do with the crew of the Hogshead? Why would Poundinch stop in the middle of nowhere in the deep of night just to meet them? Was he a part of the dark trades too? After the suspicious doings with Clerks' Sergeant Voorwind at the Axle, it was becoming disconcertingly clear that this was most probably the case. And what was that gangling giant he had glimpsed? Rossamund heard little else that day but the occasional inaudible griping, and as time went on, his anxieties increased. Surely he had to get off this unhappy vessel.
By the middle of the next day Rossamund, huddled and unmoving at the prow in an agony of fear, spied the low wall of the Spindle as it finally appeared from around a river bend. Not nearly as tall or as grand as the Axle, the Spindle was a long, low dyke of black slate, stretching the river's mile-wide waters. Along its thick middle sections it was perforated by seven great arches and several lesser tunnels toward either bank. Each arch and tunnel was blocked by a massive portcullis of blackened iron. Great taffeta flags-one side black, the other glossy white, the colors of the city-state of Brandenbrass-were flown from the four central bastions in the middle of the river and flapped wildly in the windy morning. Rossamund could see many great-cannon poking from hatches and strong points all along the walls and bastions. The ends of the Spindle terminated on either bank in a strong fortress of sharply sloping walls, high, steep roofs and tall chimneys and were protected by stout curtain walls of the same black slate as the gate itself. Rossamund could even see that the ground at the foot of the curtain walls was densely prickled with a vicious-looking thicket of thorny stakes. About the eastern fortress a small wood of swamp oak and olive grew, while along both banks leafless willows wept into the black run of the Humour. The Spindle instead was squat, imposing, daunting. To Rossamund, however, it was also the chance of escape. Hope fluttered within his rib cage and he stared at it longingly.
When Poundinch sighted the rivergate, he became agitated and positively alive. He leaped to his feet and paced his station as he had done at gunnery practice, muttering and gesticulating vaguely.
"Stay easy, lads. They've not caught ol' Poundy yet," he said over and over. He called down the speaking tube to the gastrineer, as softly as he could-for sound travels too well over water. "Ease 'er down, Mister Shunt, and when she's at th' gates keep the limbers limber, ye hear. We may need to make it away right quick!" Then he growled low to the boatswain, always on hand. "Secure below. No glimpses, no clues, just barrels o' fat-same ol' rigmarole… and make sure the newest acquisitions keep quiet too."
The archway they were to enter was low, forcing the crew of the Hogshead to lower the mast so that it lay flat on the deck. As this was done the boatswain reappeared from below, and the rivermaster ordered him to pipe all hands on deck. Responding to such a call was instinct to Rossamund, and he joined the end of the ragged line of crew, standing straight and as smartly as he could.
Poundinch stalked in front of them all and muttered just loud enough to be heard, "I wants us to be just likes we was an 'appy ol' crew, no secrets, no gripes, just on an 'appy jaunt down th' ol' 'umour-ye gets me?"
"Aye, Poundinch," was the common assent.
The rivermaster waggled his conspiratorial eyebrows. "No grumblin'." He glared at Gibbon. "No snarlin'." He squinted at some other bargeman Rossamund could not see. "Now back to it!" he barked, raising his arms.
As everyone returned to his labors, so Rossamund returned to the bow. A neat trim cromster trod proudly into the tunnel before them, its crew standing smartly in ranks on the deck. It was the same vessel that had passed the Hogshead two days before. Once again Rossamund wished he was aboard her instead. As it moved away, he looked longingly at the shiny nameplate on the stern. His heart froze.
The plate read Rupunzil.
"Rosey-me-lad! Over 'ere!" Poundinch called.
The foundling stepped over cautiously, head low, eyes wide. He could see the rivermaster staring at the other cromster's stern.
"Worked it out at last, 'ave ye?" Poundinch sneered.
Rossamund went pale.
"Took ye a bit, didn't it?" Faster than Rossamund could react, the rivermaster's hand shot out and grabbed him in a painful pinch by the back of the neck. "You stay right by me, lad." Poundinch bent himself and leered into Rossamund's face. "Just remember-ye're me cabin boy, got it?"
"I–I-I-uh… nuh… no, sir, I mean, aye-aye, sir," was all that would come out of the foundling's mouth. He could only stand there while Poundinch's fingers pressed painfully on the tendons of his neck, and marvel at the rivermaster's sudden cruelty.
Poundinch glared up at the Spindle.
"Made by a fierce, diligent folk, this," he said in a conversational tone at odds with the grip he had on the boy's scruff. "A cause of much consternation to th' lords of yer city when it were built." He turned his glare to the boy. "Whatever 'appens from 'ere on, ye're goin' to stay right 'ere by th' tiller and ol' Uncle Poundy's side, got me?"
The Hogshead was passing slowly under the high, broad tunnel of a boarding pier upon which stood several stern-looking officials, each uniformed crown to boot-toe in black proofing. Bargemen at the fo'c'sle and poop fended the Hogshead away from the slimy walls of the arch with long, strong poles.
"Ahh… Ahoy, clerklings!" Poundinch called in a simulation of generous affability. "Ready to pay me taxes, same as always. Where's ol' Excise Master Dogwater?" Not once, during this cheerful display, did the rivermaster let up his wicked grip on Rossamund's scruff.
A serious-looking fellow-Rossamund thought him even more serious than the officials serving the Axle back in Boschenberg-gave the rivermaster a long, odd look. "Excise Sergeant Dogwater has been reposted to tasks more suitable," he stated flatly.
Poundinch seemed momentarily put out by this revelation, and he released his grip on Rossamund. His face contorted frighteningly but reverted marvelously to the previous false grin. He kept his hand upon the foundling's shoulder. It must have looked friendly enough from the pier, but the rivermaster's fingers were like cunning, hidden claws.
"Very good, very good-pass on me well wishes. 'E were as fine an excise man that ever served on this river." Poundinch rocked on his heels and, after a pause in which Rossamund swore he could see the rivermaster's thoughts turn like winch gears, added, "Present comp'ny excepted, of course…"
"Of course." Unimpressed, the excise clerk held out an expectant hand. "Now, present your documents and your tallies, and scrutineers will be aboard presently."
Poundinch did as he was bid. The papers were taken through an iron door in the arch's hefty footing. Poundinch perspired, continually pursing his lips and flexing his free hand behind his back. Under the Axle, the Hogshead's master had been as cool as the cold side of the pillow. Here, however, with no secretive conversations or cynical winkings with one of the clerks, he was visibly agitated.
The original excise clerk reappeared, as expressionless as before, followed by three gentlemen heftier of build and bearing heavy, long-handled cudgels-the scrutineers. With them came a quarto of musketeers, all uniformed in black with trimmings of white. In two ranks they lined up-five at the front, five at the back-on the stone pier.
The excise clerk held up his right hand and took a breath. "By the declaration of His Grace, the Archduke and Regent of Brandenbrass, and through the ratification and execution thereby of his Cabinet of the Charters set upon the sanctity of our borders, and its Ordinances concerning the same, you are presently ordered to allow to board, and then to be boarded by and searched by, Officers of the Sovereign State of Brandenbrass, and to declare upon a solemn 'aye' that you bear no contraband or other illicit articles upon or within this vessel, whether by hold or other conveyance, and that you regard inviolate the law and assertions of the State of Brandenbrass and that State's authority. How say you?"
Rossamund had no idea what had just been said, although it sounded extremely important and gravely impressive.
It seemed that Rivermaster Poundinch had not understood either. His squint grew more furrowed. "I… uh… aye, if it's comin' aboard ye wants, then"-he bowed low with a glance to his boatswain-"by all means."
The scrutineers and the excise clerk stepped across from the pier and tapped about the upper deck for a good long while. Poundinch hovered nearby, answering the curt quizzing of the clerk with affected politeness. Rossamund stayed by the tiller as instructed, heart knotting and unknotting alarmingly. It was a gloomy afternoon made gloomier under the shadow of this arch.
Eventually the search moved to the hatch. "What a horrendous stench coming from below, sir!" called the clerk.
"Why aye, sir." Poundinch made to look chastened. "I intend to 'ave 'er in ordinary this winter, to give 'er a thorough swillin' in and out. 'Tis th' pig fat ye see-good for th' purse but 'ard on th' nose."
The clerk put a foot on the top step and the scrutineers moved to follow. He paused and half turned. "Are your limbers still turning, sir?"
"Pray still them at once! You are committing a grave breach, sir!" The clerk made to mark an entry in a large ledger.
Just for a moment Poundinch looked like a cornered cat. Then, with a "We'll not be 'avin' that!" he shoved the excise clerk down the ladder and struck the nearest scrutineer right in the jaw with one of the thick wooden pins that were used to hold the mast.
"Let fly, Mister Shunt!" he bawled. "Let fly!"
With this the chaos began. Everyone but Shunt hesitated. The Hogshead lurched forward and people sprawled, Rossamund with them. Poundinch leaped into the hold. Two scrutineers pounced after him over their fallen comrade. Hiss-crack. The boatswain felled one with a pistol shot to the neck as the other disappeared below.
On the pier the musketeers presented their firelocks, their officer crying over the din. "Hold fast-or be slaughtered where you stand!"
The crew of the Hogshead just jeered as their vessel sheered away.
"Do yar worst, ya prattling hackmillion!" cried one.
"Hold yerself, chiff-chaffing lobcock!" screeched another.
"Go lay a muck hill, Mary!" and many worse things other bargemen returned.
The quarto of musketeers fired a rattling volley that brought several to their end, while someone ashore shouted, "Grapnels! Grapnels!"
The crew returned fire with pistol and blunderbuss, their shots having little effect as the musketeers' proofing proved its quality. Only one of the soldiers fell, simply sagging where he knelt, shot through the head. Amazed at how suddenly and matter-of-factly the violence had begun, Rossamund froze first with disbelief, which quickly dissolved into utter terror. Cold nausea griped in his guts and set his fingers tingling.
The steerboard bow struck the farther wall of the arch as the boatswain was surprised by the heavy lurch and failed briefly to keep the vessel under control. The ironclad hull ground with loud metallic groans along the stone and the Hogshead lost speed. The boatswain struggled for a moment, and then reasserted his will on the vessel. Under his now sure hand, the Hogshead went out the other side of the arch. Grapnel hooks were thrown to ensnare the cromster but none held. The Hogshead was clear.
"All limbs to the screw, Shunt!" the boatswain cried into a speaking tube to the organ deck. "Git us out of 'ere!"
Below a great contest thumped and bellowed. Poundinch and whatever crew had descended to aid him tackled the excise clerk and the doughty scrutineer. The sounds they all made gave no indication of who was winning, but as the cromster gained speed it was obvious that Shunt was not involved.
Rossamund was shocked into self-preserving action as muskets fired once more and the balls panged about them. One sent some poor chap toppling into the Humour. Another struck the balustrade near Rossamund's head, scaring him mightily, and as he struggled to find a refuge, a musket shot clouted him upon his chest.
It hit harder than the hardest thump in harundo and sat him down with a tiny, audible huff! For a flash his whole existence was an intense agony right next to his heart. His eyes bulged, tears streamed. It hurt too much to breathe. He shook with terror as he thought he had gasped his last. How could they shoot at a small lad like him? What had he done that they should hate him so? Then breath returned. He was winded and certainly bruised, but he was not badly harmed. The proofing Fransitart had provided had done its admirable work. Wiping away the tears and mucus, Rossamund marveled: he had been musket-shot and had survived.
The cromster gathered more speed and made for the middle of the river, putting a hundred yards between her and the Spindle. The vessel shuddered mightily as the gastrines were strained. The crew would do all they could to make their escape: only a gallows or worse awaited otherwise.
It was then that the great-guns started.
Boom! was the first and only warning. No range-finding splash, no whistle of a shot just missing overhead: the cannon of the Spindle were too well sighted and their gunners too well practiced. The very first shot hit the stern plate, which, being the only unclad part of the hull, was one of the weakest parts of the vessel. It was a fine hit that sent wood splintering and water spraying and shook the cromster to its ribs. The next two shots struck ironclad plates along the hull, each with a dull stentorian ring. Return fire was offered by the gunners of the Hogshead, but what good are twelve-pounders against the Spindle's thick walls of slate and close-packed earth? The balls just bounced on the fortifications and plopped uselessly into the river. Whether it was the fourth, fifth or sixth shot of the great-guns none could tell, but one of them removed the boatswain without a trace and left the tiller as nothing more than a shattered, unusable stump. The Hogshead veered crazily.
A certainty took hold of Rossamund. The time to depart had come. He was on the wrong vessel with the wrong rivermaster and probably heading for a cruel and horrible end. Equally worse, now those in the Spindle were counting him as one of the dastardly crew. He had seen hangings on Unhallows Night. He knew how criminals met their end. His chance to flee was here.
Gathering up his valise, his satchel and his hat, Rossamund flung himself from the gory deck and into the inky chill of the mighty Humour.
MEETINGS ON THE ROAD TO HIGH VESTING
The plunge into the river was like a stinging slap in the face, and his heavy proofing tugged Rossamund deeper. Yet the valise somehow floated and, despite the weight of its contents, prevented him from sinking altogether. He bobbed to the surface and spluttered and gasped. He could swim, though a lot of people could not-a benefit of living in a marine society in a city by a river-and swim he did, as he had never done before. The current was slow, but enough to pull him away from the Spindle and away from the fleeing Hogshead. He splashed and flailed for shore, terrified he might end up part of the dinner of some bottom-dwelling river bogle.
The cromster had straightened somehow and was well distant from Rossamund now, smoke trailing from some unseen fire, still making good its flight downstream. Shots from the vessel popped and those of the rivergate thundered. More casualties were inflicted on the Hogshead's crew by accurate fire, while misses sprayed gouts of water about. With a mighty slap! one of these misses struck the water off to his right. He could see it clearly, a rapid, round shadow skipping once on the surface of the river before plunging with a meaty chock! into the water. With a panicked surge, he pushed for the bank.
The Humour carried him toward its eastern side. The muddy shore was almost treeless except for a thicket of tall and knotted she-oaks a little further downstream. Roots poked into the water and graceful boughs hung their long needles thickly into the same. It was an obvious landmark, and Rossamund struggled toward the trees as hard as he could. There was no one to be seen on the bank. He prayed that those in the Spindle had not seen him leap from the Hogshead, and would not see him climb out of the river and into those trees. He would be associated with the bargemen of the Hogshead in the wrong way, he was sure, and that was trouble anyone would want to avoid.
His feet finally found grip on the slimy riverbed. Dragging the valise from the current's tow, he waded ashore among curtains of soughing needle-leaves. Once out of the water he staggered and lay on the grassy bank in the shadows of the copse, sobbing, shivering, thoroughly lost. For a long while he remained dazed, unwilling to move for memory of the violence just gone and the fear of violence ahead. How could he possibly survive alone out here in the wilds, where all the monsters lived? Surely he would be eaten by the next gluttonous nicker to cross his path! If not today, then tomorrow or the next day-it was just a matter of time.
The thumping of great-guns ceased. The Hogshead had disappeared behind a bend in the river. Rossamund watched from where he lay as two dark vessels moved out from their moorings by the Spindle and headed downriver in pursuit. They were monitors-much larger than any cromster, and more than a match for the Hogshead. He continued watching until they slowly disappeared around the same bend.
With a sigh he lay back, his mind blank. He had no idea what to do next.
Come on! Think! Think! Rossamund schooled himself. Like Master Fransitart would do!
It occurred to him that the mysterious Mister Germanicus would still be expecting him in the fortress-city of High Vesting. Just how he was going to get there was the troublesome part. There was no going back to the Spindle to ask for another barge: he would probably be recognized and certainly prosecuted. There was no other option-he was going to have to walk.
But walk to where? Rossamund tried to marshal his thoughts.
All about, the land was uniformly flat-mile upon mile of broad farming land. The most obvious landmark was the black threat of the Spindle to the north and the small wood growing about its eastern bastions. Rossamund was grateful for the stand of she-oaks that sheltered him now, for he could see little other cover for miles about. He could well recall how the maps in the back of the almanac showed the region to be almost featureless.
Of course-my almanac! He took up his waterlogged satchel. Mucky water drained from a seam at the bottom. With a grimace, Rossamund looked inside. It was a sodden mess. He gloomily took out his almanac and sat it in his lap.
Now I'll find out just how waterproof this is. He gingerly opened the cover to find that the waxy pages had survived their dunking. They were not even slightly damp. There were no illegible smears in the print-not even a smudge. What a wonderful gift! Encouraged, he looked up the map of the region among the handful of other charts at the rear of the book. A thin line of communication showed from the Spindle to High Vesting. It was evidence of a road. Winstermill showed closer, but he had been told to go to High Vesting first. So it was south to the port, some eighty miles away, in a straight line, though much longer by road. It's a long walk, but I reckon it's what Master Fransitart would decide… And that settled it for him.
Rossamund began to plan. First, he would inspect the rest of his belongings, then, when it was evening, head out first east and then south until he found the road-that spidery line on the map. Hidden among the black trunks and dense needles, Rossamund struggled off his jackcoat and hung it over several branches to dry. Although it had saved his life, saturated it was unbearably heavy.
Freed of its constriction, he shivered with the cold and set to work. The execution of the first part of his plan was straightforward enough. Several things had been ruined by the water: most of his remaining food-the crust of rye bread was soaked and dirty; the dried must-dry no more-was still edible but would not keep for long; the slats of portable soup were sticky, as they were starting to dissolve. Happily, the gherkins and the fortified sack cheese had survived. The apples he had eaten days ago. His instructions and letters of recommendation, written in ink, were smudged beyond legibility. The bill of folding money that was his advance on wages was now a useless, sodden clump. Remarkably, the sealed paper had remained sealed. His other book, the lexicon of words, was a swollen ruin twice as thick as it used to be, its spine bulging. Much of the ink had spread, making words fuzzy, although fortunately still readable. Of the repellents, only the bothersalts were affected, now doses of sludge inside their little sacks. Having never encountered bothersalts before, Rossamund had no idea whether or not they were still useful, but decided to keep them anyway. The restoratives remained unspoiled in their tiny bottles, as did Craumpalin's Exstinker in its brown clay bottle. As for clothes-shirts and smalls and all, and for most other things in his possession-these were wet but still intact. Unfortunately, though, his hat and his cudgel were gone- and, Rossamund thought regretfully, Verline once said that one should never travel abroad without a hat.
Tipping water from the valise and the satchel, Rossamund arranged his belongings about him so that they might dry. He would repack them before he set out-damp, ruined or otherwise, preferring them wet and wrecked to lost. Hanging his weskit next to the jackcoat, so it too might dry, he lifted up his shirt and messily splashed Exstinker on the sodden bandage. Tucking himself back in, he settled himself in the most secluded nook to wait out the rest of sunlight. After five days on the cromster, he had become accustomed to the subtle movements of the vessel in the water. His senses still pitched and swayed gently as he lay there, almost rocking him to sleep.
Some small bird squeaked three times, then shot away, with a whir.
Rossamund blinked heavily. In his hand he gripped a bottle of tyke-oil. With the bothersalts ruined, it was all he had to ward off monsters. At the first sign of one, he would splash it in its face and run. With this determination the memory of the frightening stories told by the older boys at the foundlingery came unsought. Night, they used to say, was when monsters grew bold, when the nickers roamed and the bogles haunted. He had not the slightest doubt that night was when all sorts of strife could occur, but night would also allow him to travel unnoticed by people-especially those in the Spindle. At that moment, search parties from the rivergate scared him more. Hugged in his own arms, Rossamund managed to doze the rest of the afternoon, his chest hurting where the musket ball had struck. At one point he woke and thought he could reckon the faint pounding of guns again, carried from a long way off by gentle afternoon breezes.
The monitors must have caught the Hogshead…
When evening came, he put back on his clothes, now dry enough to wear. He gathered his near-dry gear and packed it all once more, tidy and secure, as he had watched Master Fransitart do. Reluctant to leave, he took his time, gently shaking both valise and satchel several times to test for unnecessary rattles, and repacking them again and again till there were none. All the time, a gurgling knot of fear churned in his middle. For a time he was stuck between terror of the dark and the unknown dangers ahead, and the anxiety of still being so close to the Spindle. In the end, out of sheer frustration, he set out from his hide of she-oak needles, his pulse pounding in his ears with every step.
He walked as quickly as he might across the too-soft earth of the plowed, open field that went back from the riverbank. To his left, lantern and limn-thorn lights of yellow, orange and green twinkled in a deceptively friendly way all along walls and in the slit windows of the Spindle. Dark shadows lurked beyond its eastern end-the shapes of the trees that made the small wood there. A distant line of lamps extended east from the rivergate through and beyond this wood, then turned south where flat open field and pasture spread to the horizon. This land offered easy traveling but little cover. The faintly sparkling line was evidence of the road Rossamund had counted on to take him south to High Vesting, the lights much like those he would be employed to service on the Worm way. It was hard to see, but he went on, keeping the lantern line to his left. When it ceased he did not stop, but kept walking till the last glimmer was lost in the distance and night. He stopped then. There was no point going back, he thought, and certainly nothing to be gained from staying put. He caught his breath for a moment, then sighed. Onward, onward he would go till the path became clear again.
The gloom of cloud was blown northwest, to reveal a high silver moon glittering coldly. Phoebe, the moon was sometimes called-Rossamund liked that name-and her timely appearance allowed him to set his bearings. He had felt her there, hidden behind the clouds, felt her like the moving of the great ocean tides in his guts. Certain he was going in the right direction, he adjusted the valise once more and went on into the dangerous dark.
As he walked, Rossamund heard every so often odd, far-off shriekings or infrequent and muffled hoomings, and once a strange rumbling coming from the east. Refusing to be thwarted by fear, the foundling put his head down when he heard any of these, walking faster for a time, every sense tingling with terror, till eventually he tired and then slowed, sure that he could go no further.
He stopped for a moment, took a sip from his biggin and looked to the heavens to get his bearings. The great yellow-green star Maudlin had risen high and bright, proving how late it was and making him feel desperately weary. Putting away the water, he walked on.
A black bulk appeared, silhouetted and obvious on this flat land. His heart leaped! The memory of the terrible beast he had glimpsed several nights earlier reared in his imagination. Ears ringing with tension, Rossamund crouched low and crept in a wide arc about the shadowy bulk. Several times he was sure, with the cold grip of dread, that it had moved-yet somehow it also stayed strangely still. He was almost upon it before he realized it was a haystack, right in the middle of the field. He nearly collapsed with relief: instead of a threat, here was a place to rest. He staggered through plowed soil so soft it almost tripped him, flopped down on the leeward side of the haystack and burrowed into the straw, dragging the valise with him. He sagged, exhausted. Sleep came quickly. Even when another shriek wailed a little too close, he slept.
A numb ache in Rossamund's left shoulder, near where he had been shot, woke him. He rubbed his shoulder, but that only made it hurt more. He was still so very tired. He had survived his first night alone. Crawling cautiously out from his haystack burrow, he peered about. It was early morning, the sun barely over the horizon. Showing against the pale sky were giant windmills marching away to the eastern horizon in long, staggered rows. Although the very flatness of the land made him feel conspicuous, it also let him see if he was being followed. As far as the eye could see in the early dawn, nothing moved on the road or the fields about except the great sails of the mills.
Yet the fear of a patrol from the Spindle still dogged him, and Rossamund struggled through the fields for an hour. Soon it became too wearisome to tread in the soft soil and he was forced onto the road. He walked on and on but met no one else. After a while the way was intersected by a path. There was a single sign there, pointing down the main roadway. The Vestiweg it said-or Vesting Way-the road to High Vesting. He was on the right road and upon it he would stay.
The day became unusually warm and remained so. A southeasterly breeze came, welcome and cool, as luggage and harness began to weigh on him. Eventually the valise became too hard to carry on his back and he resorted to towing it along behind him by the straps, its metal bindings dragging dustily in the sandy gravel. With stubbornness beyond his years, he walked on steadily, his thoughts completely taken with reaching High Vesting. Stops were frequent, and Rossamund always looked furtively about as he rested. The boy found that he was not as alone as he had first felt: cows in sturdily fenced pastures lowed and chewed; birds of many kinds-warbling magpies, shrilling mud larks, tetching wagtails and silent swallows-dashed about, often calling, chasing off strangers, hunting insects that also flitted hither and thither. Of the insects the birds' favorite seemed to be the large wurtembottles. These fat black flies from warmer northern lands insisted on bumbling about Rossamund's face, neck and especially his ears. No matter how often or how furiously he thrashed and shooed them, these wurtembottles returned to their lazy harassment. There was a moment as he stepped along that he thought he spied a person-a farmer perhaps-cutting across the fields far to his left, but he could not be certain who or what it was and dared not call out. Other than this the road had been eerily empty of any other traffic. Having grown up surrounded by people, crowded with them, he had thought space and solitude a golden prize. Now isolated and far from comfort, he wished very much to be pressed by the crowd once more.
Onward, onward. He had to get to High Vesting.
Fortunately Rossamund still carried enough food to keep him from desperation, including that day's main meal: a sludge that used to be the dried must and the now almost gluelike rye bread. Craumpalin had once said that hunger was the best sauce, and Rossamund could not have agreed more as he took to the bland slop with relish. The supper was still soggy enough to even wet his thirst. This was important, for although he had enough to eat, he had little water. Rossamund had filled his biggin with the Humour's dark waters and tried to conserve it on the way. It tasted like composting leaves, yet by the unseasonably hot day's end it was almost gone. He did not know exactly what would happen when one had no water, though he knew that it had to be bad. By sundown he could see distant trees growing in scruffy stands along the road and hoped a source of water might be among them. When he finally reached them he discovered no water, and so walked on. When, a mile later, he settled to sleep in a cavelike gap between the boughs of a huge boxthorn, he had drunk his last mouthful from the biggin.
Huddled in the shelter of the lonely tree, Rossamund stared into the gathering dark with equally increasing disquiet. A nameless fear that something or someone dogged him made every shadow jump and loom. As the unfriendly night weighed down, punctuated as it was by distant, frightening noises, he sought to distract himself by humming happy, peaceful hymns, as he had heard Verline do for a troubled child. Still the deep dark oppressed. He hummed on softly, hoarse with thirst, until somehow he coaxed himself to sleep. A sound stirred him. It was early morning, the sky pale, the still air cold again. His throat rasped with pain, but he had survived a second night.
The sound came again, unusual and out of place.
Rossamund quickly blinked away the sleepy grit and listened. Morning birds welcoming the rising sun with their calls-these had not woken him; the buzzing of the wur tembottles waiting for him to evacuate his thorny room-neither had these. Then it came once more, this sound, and remained, getting louder: a jangling, steady clop-clop-clop, then the unmistakable snort of a horse.
The musketeers of the Spindle have come for me! He turned his body and craned his head as quietly as possible to see if he could catch sight of his pursuers through the spiny tangle of many intertwined boughs. Up on one elbow, neck stretched to straining, he did see something and it was not a company of musketeers, but rather a landaulet-an open four-wheeled carriage with a folding top drawn by a single, heavy-looking and mud-brown nag. It was being driven by a figure with a pronounced hunch, his face hidden behind the upturned collar of a dark maroon coachman's cloak and beneath the shadow of a thrice-high of almost matching color. Behind the driver reclined an elegant passenger of unclear gender in clothes so fine that Rossamund could tell the refinement of their cut from his obscure vantage point. As the carriage came near, the elegant passenger called with the clear ring of an educated woman's voice. "Well, stop here if you must! You know I have places to be and can't be troubled by every quibble or suspicion. But, stop I say, if it will cease your twittering!"
Accordingly the vehicle was pulled to a halt just before the boxthorn.
There was a pause, and then the woman's voice spoke clearly again. "Go on then, I shall wait!"
The driver obediently got down and began to swing his head about as if searching, revealing his face-or what should have been a face. Instead it was a rectangular wooden box pocked occasionally with small round holes on its front and two larger openings, one on the lower end of each side. Thick leather straps held it to his head. A sthenicon! Rossamund stared, horrified. The driver was a leer! Rossamund knew there was no escaping a leer: the sthenicon revealed every scent of every living thing big or small that moved within an area of a mile or more. What is more, they were reported to be able to see things everyday folk could not, to peer into secrets and search in hidden regions. The box-faced driver shuffled nearer to the overgrown boxthorn bush and peered within, his head swaying and poking forward. He became still. Rossamund sucked in a breath and lay very still, every nerve and fiber straining, waiting.
How he wished he had not lost his cudgel. How he regretted the spoiled bothersalts.
Eventually the box-faced driver stepped back to the landaulet and appeared to address the elegant passenger, as the latter leaned over and both heads nodded, at times with pronounced emphasis. A conclusion seemingly reached, the woman alighted from the carriage and, straightening her fine clothes, stepped with determined poise over to where the driver had stood before the boxthorn. She wore the most luxurious and unusually cut frock coat of deep scarlet, buttoned and buckled at the side, and the shiniest, blackest equiteer boots Rossamund had ever seen. The hem of the coat hung low and flared extravagantly, rustling as she approached.
She stopped and squinted vaguely into the little grove. "In here, you say?" she asked over her shoulder. Her chestnut hair was gathered up behind her crown in a bun, held with a pointed comb pinned by a hair-tine ending in a clenched crow's claw. Long wisps of flyaway fringe danced in any small movement of air.
She leaned forward. "You in there, little one," she called quite softly.
Rossamund did not know what to do.
"We've certainly no intention to harm you, so you can stop pretending you're not there and come out."
Maybe she spoke the truth? Maybe she had water? Rossamund was about to act when his leg was gripped and tugged. Involuntarily he screamed and kicked with his free foot. This too was grabbed and he was pulled out from his hiding-hole into the blinkingly bright morning, hanging upside down-valise and all-in the irresistible grip of the driver. Rossamund squealed like a little piglet, struggling violently-but all his twisting and writhing did not alter his position.
"Put me down, you looby!" he spluttered, serving up the worst curse he knew.
The box-faced driver ignored his almost foul language and carried him around to the roadside, where he held him out in much the same way someone might have held a frantic, just-caught fish. Rossamund continued to twist and writhe.
The elegant woman approached him as someone might approach a cornered snake.
"Now, now," she soothed, "put him down, Licurius. We've said we'd not harm him, so we had better not now, had we?"
As soon as his ankles were released, Rossamund scissored wildly with his legs for a moment to make sure they stayed free, then rolled over frantically and sprang to his feet. He looked left and right, hoping to dart away and escape. The woman regarded him closely for a long while, and he became still under her keen stare. Rossamund was not so young as not to see that she was a great beauty, but there was a hardness to her and a darkness. It was then that he noticed a small blue mark above her left eye-a diamond-shaped spoor. She was a lahzar-one of those fabled monster-fighters who went to some far-off place to have secret surgeries done to their bodies, secret surgeries that made it possible for them to do strange and terrible deeds and fight monsters. He knew immediately by the spoor this elegant scarlet woman wore that her special talent was to generate and manipulate electricity and lightning. Among lahzars, this group were known as fulgars.
The lady fulgar smiled. The smell of her wafted about Rossamund, a strange scent-sweet, yet salty and sharp too.
"Hello, little man," she offered, in what was probably her kindliest voice. "My name is Europe. This is my factotum," she said, indicating the box-faced driver. "His name is Licurius. What do they call you?"
Rossamund did not answer.
Europe pursed her lips, glanced at Licurius and sighed. "As I have said, we really have no thought of hurting you. Indeed, little man, you are of little consequence to us. I might care enough to help you, but not nearly so much as to hurt you." She gave a mirthless chuckle and then became serious. "You see, I believe you have to particularly care about somebody to put the effort into harming them. Now, tell me your name and when you've done that you can tell me what a little fellow like yourself is doing out here in the hinterlands without his hat?" She smiled in a knowing way, an expression that promised either malice or friendship, depending upon what might happen next.
For the briefest moment Rossamund weighed his options. He relented and said, "My name is Rossamund Bookchild and I lost my hat in the river."
"I gave you your chance, boy!" Europe was suddenly lit with a powerful yet suppressed rage. "If you're going to dash it with saucy nonsense, then this is where we part ways!" She turned on her heel as if to leave, coat hems swirling.
"I-fell-off-a-boat-bound-for-High-Vesting-and-swam-ashore!" Rossamund yelped in one frightened breath. He continued almost as quickly. "And my name really is Rossamund, and I know it's not the right kind of name for a lad but I was given it while I was too young to argue and now it is written in the ledger and there is no going back on that…"
Europe stood still, cocked her head and made a wry face.
"I am a book child-a foundling-and I'm supposed to be in High Vesting so I can start my job and now I'm probably lost and I've got no water to drink and… and…" Rossamund trembled on that awful verge where tears begin and poise is lost.What is more, he had revealed more about himself than he had intended. He was sure that if Fransitart could see him now, his old dormitory master would be shaking his head in dismay.
"I see." The fulgar pondered for a moment. "You have very fine proofing for a foundling, little man. Did you happen to steal it?"
"No, ma'am!" Rossamund was simultaneously startled and offended.
The fulgar shrugged. "Either way, maybe I can be of help to you after all. If it is water you need, there is plenty on the carriage." She paused sagely, then smiled an oddly cheeky smile. "I could even do as much as cart you to High Vesting, if you would like, though you will have to join me as I work. What do you think, Licurius? Shall we aid this poor, lost, well-dressed book child? You never know, with your poor eyesight an extra pair of peepers could be handy on our way."
Licurius nodded just once.
"There you go!" Europe kept grinning in mild triumph.
So they climbed into the landaulet, all three-Licurius handing his mistress aboard-and set off down the Vestiweg once more. Rossamund's thoughts sang happily as he drank his fill of water and the flat fields rocked by. Whatever anyone else said, he thought lahzars were the finest folk he had ever met.
SORROW AT THE BRINDLESTOW BRIDGE
It was supremely comfortable in the landaulet: the seats were pliant and easing, the upholstery and trimmings all wrapped in thick, glossy leather of a scarlet almost as rich as Europe's sumptuous frock coat. And there was indeed as much clean water as Rossamund needed, stored in black lacquered panniers hanging from the back of the carriage. There were also several bottles of claret, of a rather cheap variety, so Europe informed him, mixed with apple pulp, "and not meant for small boys!" All in all, he thought it a fine way to make the rest of his way to High Vesting.
Not long into the journey, however, they crossed over a small wooden platform under which bubbled a happily babbling runnel, probably a drain for the fields. It was enough water to quench any thirst and not so far down the road that Rossamund would have perished before he found it. This really struck him: had he pushed on, he might have been all right on his own after all. He thought life's twistings very odd.
Europe chatted gaily at first. She talked about the weather and then about the strange dress-sense of the women from the Considine, the Emperor's second capital far away south. She talked on and on about a great deal more, usually about herself: great conquests of fearsome nickers and even greater conquests of certain "stupid, wealthy dolts," as she called them-whatever that meant. Rossamund found it all rather hard to follow, but nodded as politely and as attentively as he could. While she talked, she offered him expensive foods in an elaborately offhand manner, dainty morsels the likes of which he had only ever seen in the quality street confectioners of Boschenberg. There were nibbles of many types of nut; strips of rare cured meats-gazelle, ibex, harp seal-delicately flavored with expensive spices; and sachets of dried fruits-peaches and strange yellow triangles she called "pineapple" which tasted so oddly and delightfully sweet he could not stop picking at them; and a small profusion of little bruised things. He asked what these were.
"Those? Oh, they're whortleberries," she said simply, but with that one statement Rossamund's eyes went wide. How rich could one person be! Whortleberries were the absolute king of way foods: one little dried berry, though not able to relieve the pangs of hunger, could give a full-grown man energy for almost a whole day. They grew in very remote and threwdish-haunted-places and their cultivation and trade were vigilantly guarded. All this made them astoundingly expensive, but here, now, in this luxurious landaulet, was a small fortune's worth.
"May I try one?" he asked timidly.
Europe gave him an odd look. "Certainly. They're there for the eating-though not too many, mind, or the top of your head might blow off as you run giggling down the road."
He took just one and examined it closely. It was a withered berry no bigger than the fingernail of his little finger, the color of a plum gone bad. Very unimpressive. He plopped it quickly in his mouth. It tasted flat and disappointingly bland, but when he swallowed, a tingling started in his belly and a happy, lively warmth spread to the top of his head. Rossamund blinked and grinned. He changed his mind and thought it the nicest thing he had ever eaten. With this new pulse of energy and surge of well-being he started to fidget and shift about in his seat.
Europe watched his antics with amusement. "Works wonderfully well, does it not?" she observed.
"Aye, ma'am! I reckon I could run all the way to High Vesting and back!" he enthused.
"Yes, well…" Her expression became a little mocking. "Let us not go too far."
This was a little deflating, but the whortleberry made Rossamund's spirits so high he was not downhearted for long. Forgetting himself a little, he began to poke about the interior of the carriage, prodding at the upholstery. On the seat beside him was a plain-looking box-a case really, quite large and long and flat and lacquered a glistening black. Rossamund went to pat its smooth surface, but pulled his hand away quickly as he felt a faint, queasy dread emanating from within it.
Europe quickly became stern. "Nothing in there, little sneak!"
She took up this box and poked it away between her and the side wall of the landaulet. "Didn't they tell you at your bookhouse that curious eyes rot in their sockets and curious fingers wither to their knuckles?"
After this the lady fulgar became quiet and ignored Rossamund, quickly growing sullen and staring at the distant windmills and featureless land, her chin cupped in hand, elbow propped on knee. "I hate this place…" she muttered. This was all she said for quite a long time.
Rossamund had no idea what to do, and sat perplexed. Eventually he offered the lahzar one of her own whortleberries, thinking this might cheer her, but she just looked at it blankly, frowned at him and went back to her listless maundering. Rossamund became suddenly and painfully aware of the strangeness of his surroundings and of the two people with whom he shared the carriage. He sat very still and very, very quiet.
Later that day it rained, and this seemed to improve Europe's mood considerably. "This is more like it," she grinned. Sitting up straighter, she called to Licurius, "Fighting weather, hey, Box-face! And let there be more of it too!"
Once more, Rossamund had no idea what she was talking about. Licurius ignored her as he had ignored the rain-and most everything else, it seemed.
Europe pulled the broad, bonnetlike canopy up and over them, keeping them and the plush interior dry while Licurius, at the front, was left to soak as he stoically dictated the landaulet's course. This made Rossamund uneasy and unhappy, reminding him of the times when Madam Opera bullied and badgered dear Verline. He did not understand why one person should have all that he or she needed and dictate to others what they have or have not.
Even with the fulgar's rapid lift in spirits they continued the rest of that day's journey in silence and in the rain, Rossamund taking the opportunity to read his already well-thumbed almanac. It said very little about the region they were in except that it was called the Sough, that it was very fertile and that it was famous for its lettuces and strawberries, though he had so far seen few of either. In the early evening, when they stopped for the night, it was still showering. Gaps in the cloud showed the glorious golden orange of the sun's late light reflected off enormous cumulous columns. In the strange yellow gloom Licurius tended to the pony, hobbling it and attaching a feed bag to its bridle. He then set small cones of repellent in a circle about their temporary camp, scratching strange marks in the soil with a stick at the intervals between each cone. He set a modest fire with wood they carried with them and, when it was burning merrily, put some kind of small cauldron in its midst. All this done, the leer finally prepared his bed beneath the landaulet.
From under the canopy, with the rain going patter, patter upon it, Europe called softly to him, "I'll be wanting the brew in about twenty minutes, I think, but be sure it has mixed well and is the right temperature."
With a quick, resentful glare at Rossamund she took out the nondescript black box that had caused such tension earlier and handed it almost secretively to Licurius. Then she lit an oil lamp with deft strokes of a flint and steel, and, opening a compartment beneath her seat, pulled out a great clothbound book. Producing a pencil, she began to scratch and scrawl in the book, humming or tch-tch-ing in turn. After a while she looked up sharply and quizzed Rossamund flatly, "You know what I am, don't you, child?" She waggled the end of her pencil in the vicinity of her left brow, indicating the small blue outline of the fulgar's diamond above it. "What this means?"
Rossamund had no idea what to say. "I uh… uh…" He suddenly felt embarrassed to talk about her occupation, as though it was a private, even a shameful thing. In the end he nodded. Her expectant gaze was even more terrible than Madam Opera's.
"And what is that?" she persisted.
Rossamund flushed and wished he was a thousand miles elsewhere. "You're a lahzar," he mumbled.
"I'm a what?"
Rossamund almost rolled his eyes, but thought better of it. "A fulgar-a monster-fighter. You make sparks and lightning."
Europe gave a chuckle, then sat back, her chin stuck out pompously. "I prefer the name teratologist or, if one must be vulgar, pugnator. But yes, my boy, you have it in two. No doubt you have heard of my kind-how we are spooky, how we are scary, how you common folk couldn't live without us? Hmm? Well, it's all true, and worse. Mine is a life of violence. Would you like a life of violence, little man?"
Rossamund shook his head cautiously.
"What about a life of adventure, then? Is that where you're bound? To begin some adventurous life in High Vesting?"
The boy thought for a moment, bowing his head under her beady hazel-brown gaze, and eventually shrugged.
"Hmph!" Europe pursed her lips. "What I'd like to know is this: when does adventure stop and violence begin? Answer me that and we'll both be wiser."
Fransitart had been right after all: lahzars were strange and discomfiting folk. Rossamund regretted accepting this one's assistance. Once more he had no real idea of what she was talking about, and certainly no idea how to reply.
At that moment Licurius stepped up holding a pewter dish full of what looked like steaming black oil, gluggy and evil-smelling. The foundling almost gagged at the stink of the stuff, but Europe put down her large book, took the dish gratefully and drank the filthy contents in a manner that Madam Opera would have declared sternly was "very unladylike!" A tingle of disgust shivered down Rossamund's ribs as the fulgar drained the dregs and sighed a contented sigh.
"Many times better," she smiled, showing teeth scummed with black as she handed the dish back to the ever-patient Licurius. She took out her crow's claw hair-tine and comb, letting silken, chestnut locks free; then she dimmed the lantern, lay back, wrapped herself in a blanket and without another word fell asleep.
It was then that another stench assaulted Rossamund's senses: the leer had lit the cones of repellent, and their exotic fumes were now drifting over the camp. It was like nothing Rossamund had ever encountered before and it made him feel wretched. His head began to pound and his very soul was gripped by an urgency to flee. His discomfort must have shown, for he was sure Licurius was regarding him closely beneath that blank box of a face. Wrapping his scarf about his nose and throat as if to keep out the cold, but rather to muffle the reek, Rossamund tried to show that nothing was wrong. Nevertheless the leer paused and leaned closer.
The boy was sure he heard sniffing: the faint but definite snuffling of smells.
Then, for the first time since their meeting, the leer spoke. "Do you fare well, boy?" The voice came as a wheezing, hissing whisper, strangely unmuffled despite the impediment of the sthenicon. "You look like you've had a nasty turn there. All's well, is it? D'ye not like the stink of our potives?"
Feeling a greater threat under the blank gaze of this man than in the manic ways of the fulgar, Rossamund cowered in his muffle. He did not know whether to nod or shake his head, and just wobbled it in circles vigorously.
"You smell funny to me. Did you know that? Wheeze… you smell funny to me…" The leer leaned yet closer. "Answer, boy, or do you want of a man's courage with such a pretty name?"
Momentarily speechless, the foundling blinked several times, completely baffled. What harm is there in smelling funny? "I su… suppose I do, sir," he started. "I haven't had a bath for well over a week now. I reckon the river has made it worse."
"Hiss! I know river-ssmell, upssstart," Licurius returned, shaking with inexplicable rage. "And unwashed bodiess too. You are neither of thesse.You ssmell wrong! Wheeze…"
"I…" When would this fellow just leave him alone? Who cared how he smelled? For the first time since he had left the foundlingery, Rossamund thought about the knife Fransitart had given him, still in its scabbard at the end of his baldric, thought whether he might be forced to produce it as an aid to his defense. What a strange and terrible notion-cudgels were one thing, but knives and other slitting-slicing tools quite another. "Master Fransitart told me that people from different cities eat different foods, that each would make them smell funny to other folk."
"Of courssse." The leer stroked his throat with a hand gloved in black velvet. He sounded less than convinced.
Europe shifted restlessly, then turned to her side and intervened with a soft voice as she did so. "Leave him be, Licurius. Everyone has their secrets. Perhaps he should ask you, oh great leer, about a certain Frestonian girl…"
At this Licurius stepped back and away from Rossamund with an odd gurgle, to the boy's great relief. Shortly after, the leer doused the fire, crept to his cradle beneath the landaulet and bothered the boy no more. Even so, eyes wide in the dark, Rossamund stayed awake for a long time, well into the small hours, feeling more unsafe than he ever had when he had bunked by himself in the haystack or the boxthorn. Not even the happy appearance of Phoebe as nighttime clouds blew away east cheered him.
He felt terribly alone. The next day, the leer paid Rossamund no more mind than he had at any other time other than the bizarre bedtime incident last night. After another draft of that black ichor had been brewed for Europe, and the foundling had wandered briefly for a relieving stroll, they were on their way again into a frigid fog. By midmorning the vapors cleared and the country began changing. The fields became smaller and fewer and the land rockier, sloping upward ever more until they found themselves on the stony, uncultivated heights before a forested valley. This depression was filled with a great wood of evergreen beeches and stately pines, and into it the road now descended. Rain had washed broad ruts into the Vestiweg as it went down the flanks of the valley, creating enough of a hazard that Licurius was obliged to get down from his seat and lead the horse carefully on foot.
Europe frowned at the poor condition of the road. "Roadway gone to clay, bring two shoes and carry one away," she sighed, sipping at a glass of claret and sucking on-of all things-a chunk of rock salt. Draining the glass, she looked sidelong at her young passenger and suddenly leaned across, taking his small hands in hers.
Rossamund started and pulled back, not knowing what to expect. The lahzar stroked his knuckles absentmindedly, and even though her touch was as soft as Verline's and her grip gentle, he was very aware that she just might shock him or worse.
She smiled. "I apologize for my factotum's behavior last night," she offered quietly. "He's a curious fellow, and this serves me well most of the time. Unfortunately it also makes him… twitchy, one might say. Pay him no heed-he's harmless enough."
Rossamund could see how, to a fulgar of such self-confessed might as Europe, Licurius might seem less than threatening. But to this boy, the leer was anything but harmless.
"Now, very shortly I am going to have some work to do." Europe released his hands with a pat and sat back. "And you might find it scary enough, but fear not: I have been in business for a great long while now." She paused and looked heavenward, tapping her lips with a long, elegant finger. "Hmmm, too long perhaps. Nevertheless, you can be assured that you are safe."
Rossamund looked about. "Will there be monsters?" he whispered.
Europe laughed-a bright, crystalline chortle-as they entered the dark gloom beneath ancient eaves. "My, my, there are always monsters!"
"Really? Always?" The foundling sat up.
Europe nodded gravely. "I am afraid so, yes. Here, there and everywhere-not that city folk would know. It's out here in the nether regions that the nickers roam and the bogles lurk. But lo! Not a fear, Europe is here!" She finished with a flourish of her hand and a grin.
The light was growing dim, though the time was barely midday, as the road drove deeper and deeper into the wood-a deep green dusk full of hushed expectancy and subtle murmurings. Trunks huge and old spread out great, knobbled roots furry with moss, about which the leaf-carpeted road was forced to bend and twist. There was little undergrowth but for some scattered colonies of fungus-tall, thin, capped mushrooms, large, flat toad-stools, tiny red must, which even Rossamund knew was good for eating and for certain potions, and plump puffballs ready to pop. Bracken grew everywhere else, even upon the trees, while thin myrtle saplings sprouted here and there, struggling for life.
Rossamund had never been in such a place as this and found its appearance marvelous, more wild and beautiful than any of Boschenberg's elegant, manicured parks. Yet there was a great watchfulness here, a feeling of being observed and unwelcome.This place was threwdish: a place where monsters might like to dwell. It marred the woods' beauty and oppressed the visitor. He shivered and checked his almanac, squinting to read in the dimness. They had entered the Brindlewood, or so it said.
"What does that contain?" Europe asked a little too loudly, as she fixed her hair back into the bunlike style, just as it had been the day before.
"I was just finding out where we were," said Rossamund.
The lahzar chuckled. "I could have told you that. This"-she waved about grandly-"is the Grintwoode… or the Brindleshaws, as the locals will have it. We're on the northernmost marches of the Smallish Fells, the western tip of Sulk End, having recently entered the domain and jurisdiction of High Vesting." She pointed casually to the book with her crowfoot hair-tine before poking it into the bun and comb. "I think you'll find I am right."
The almanac agreed. Rossamund was impressed.
Giving a bored look, she sighed. "I've been here before. 'Tis a troublesome place."
A short time later Licurius brought the landaulet to a halt, stopping at a bend where the road began to descend even more steeply, falling over a series of folds in the earth before disappearing below around the flank of the hill. He alighted and went to the rear of the carriage. Rossamund heard thumpings and scrapings.The factotum reappeared on Europe's side holding a great pole about twelve feet long, as thick as a man's thumb and tightly wrapped in copper wire. It was a fuse. Rossamund had heard and read of them but had not seen one until now. He stared at it in open wonder.
She must be about to fight. Rossamund's heart began to pound in anticipation.
The lahzar took the fuse from the leer with a sweet smile and laid it across both seats, one end sticking some way over the side of the landaulet. Then she retrieved something out of her precious black box and put it in her mouth, chewing slowly with a disgusted look. These apparent necessities done, they were on their way again, Licurius now driving from the seat once more. The road went into a steep decline cut into the side of a hill carpeted in pine needles, bending always right and going always down. From their vantage point Rossamund could see that they would soon come to a stone bridge a little farther below, which crossed a narrow, moatlike ravine.
Europe finished her mouthful and fixed her small passenger with a serious eye. "Now, however, things shall soon proceed. You must declare to me that you will stay here within the landaulet no matter what. Do you declare it?"
Going white and wide-eyed, he nodded. "Aye, madam."
"I'm sure you do."
The roadway dipped for a moment as it crossed a creek, then passed right through and over the crown of a small knoll, either side flanked by a high earth cutting topped with sinuous pines. Beyond and below, the road widened in a clearing of grass and shattered tree stumps before constricting again at the bridge, which spanned the narrow gap in a solid, gentle curve. As they arrived on the farther edge of this clearing, Rossamund thought he heard a rumbling, a kind of slow thudding, though he could not be sure.
Licurius halted the landaulet and climbed down once more. With a respectful bow he offered Europe his gloved hand as she alighted. The thudding was unmistakable now, like great footsteps, and echoes among the trunks made it sound as if it was all around. While her factotum held her fuse, the fulgar straightened her frock coat, tightened buckles and secured buttons. Suddenly the whole forest seemed to burst with a stentorian cracking.
Rossamund leaped to his seat and looked about wildly to find the danger as Licurius lunged for the bridle of the spooked nag. There! Just before the bridge a young pine was collapsing, pushed out of the way by the tallest creature the foundling had ever seen.
It looked just like an enormous person, taller than ten tall men, except that its legs were too short, its arms too long, and its body altogether too thick, too hunched and too rectangular. It was an ettin-one of the biggest of the land monsters-and it peered about momentarily before fixing a critical eye on the landaulet.
"Fie, fie, what do I spy? Gold-toting travelers passing us by," it boomed in a surprisingly well-spoken way, forming the words with great articulations of its jaw through a mouth full of protruding, blackened and spadelike teeth. It stepped into the clearing, sending the shattered pine toppling into the gorge.
Europe gave Rossamund a passing wink. "How so, how so, to do my work I go," she murmured, then she turned and marched directly toward the ettin, shouldering the fuse and waving to get its attention.
Rossamund was agog: surely she did not think to challenge such a fearsome foe? It wore a large smock for modesty's sake made up of many hessian sacks stitched very roughly together. Under its left arm the ettin carried a great barrel, which had probably been a vat for aging wine or brewing beer. The ettin waggled this distinctly, pointing within its wide gape.
"I'll not stop your chill-day stroll," the ettin hoomed, "if you'll not shrink from the bridge-crossing toll."
"Ho! ho!" Europe chortled dramatically, continuing her approach. "It's that old ruse, is it? Frighten everyday folks out of their goods?"
The ettin nodded once. From Rossamund's vantage it seemed very proud of itself.
"What's more, you stand-and-deliver us with sweet little rhymes. What a lovely touch, don't you think, Licurius?" the lahzar continued, looking over her shoulder briefly at the leer, rolling her eyes mockingly as she did.
Licurius, as always, said nothing.
The ettin almost beamed with self-satisfaction, revealing even more crooked spadelike teeth. Rossamund was finding it very hard to believe this creature was all that terrible. In fact it seemed more like a childish prankster than a dread threat.
"And what do they call you, sir?" Europe stopped no more than ten feet away from the giant and planted her fuse firmly.
Hesitating for a moment, the ettin formed its reply with obvious effort. "I'm th' Miss-be-gotten Schr-rewd." It patted its chest.
"Well, Mister Schrewd, do you know who I am?"
The ettin shook its head.
The lahzar's voice became very icy. "No?" She gave a cold, humorless smile. "It's a bit much, I suppose, to expect absolutely everybody to have heard of me. No matter."
Rossamund was grateful she had not asked him the same question when they had first met.
"Nevertheless," she went on, "there's a problem, you see.
Everyday folk don't want to pay your toll, and I for one don't believe they should have to. What say you to that?"
The ettin's face fell. It looked genuinely perplexed.
Europe pressed on. "Hmm? Well, I have an alternative for you, and it's the only one really, though I know you'll neither understand nor agree…" The fulgar toed the ground in a mime of unconcern.
"What's she going to do?" Rossamund whispered to Licurius. "Will she send it on its way?" Disturbed, Rossamund stood, causing the wagon to rock and the horse to nicker.
"Be still, toad! Wheeze!" Licurius hissed. "The beggar must die. That is our duty!"
This small interruption caught the schrewd's attention. It peered at them in a baffled way.
Europe took her chance and struck out with speed, jabbing ferociously into the schrewd's belly with her fuse. She spun about, as fast as the eye, with coat skirts flying, to strike again at its rump. There were no bright flashes, just a loud Zzack! with the first hit, and a ringing Zzizk! with the second.
The ettin yelped and staggered, and dropped the barrel. As this hit the ground, many apples in various states of decay and a rind of cheese bounced out. In truth the brute had not really expected much at all! It flailed its arms wildly, and whether by design or accident caught Europe up in a giant fist. This was its big mistake-the fellow had surely never encountered fulgars before. It made as if to hurl Europe into the trees, but instead, with a look of profound confusion and horror, stood suddenly transfixed. By some invisible force, and most certainly against its will, the ettin bent its arm. This unwilling action brought Europe, whose own arms were outstretched and groping, closer to its head. All the time Rossamund could read in its eyes But why? But why?
"No!" Rossamund cried. He leaped off the landaulet, avoiding the grasp of Licurius as the leer wrestled with the near-panicked horse.
By now the schrewd held Europe up in front of its face and she quickly gripped its forehead like a snake might strike a bare ankle, sending a mighty charge of electricity straight into the monster's skull. The schrewd could not even bellow its agony as smoke began to rise from its head. It simply swayed and took one step backward toward the ravine; then another, and another, and another.
"No… no… no," was all Rossamund could find to say. Tears began to flow as he stumbled, as helpless as the schrewd, unable to do anything to intervene.The foundling dropped to his knees in horror.
Almost inevitably the ettin tottered on the brink. It paused there for one terrible moment, its usually squinty eyes almost popping out of their sockets in terror, before toppling headlong into the gorge. As it fell, it released its grip on Europe, who pushed off from its hand and vaulted back nimbly to the ravine's edge. She landed lightly, ready to fight on.
In control of its voice once more, the Misbegotten Schrewd let forth a heart-wrenching wail-a cry of deep sorrow and great agony-which echoed all around the gorge, and then ended all too abruptly.
Huddled on the ground, Rossamund wept.
He became aware through his tears that Europe was standing over him. She bent down and stroked his hair briefly, almost as Verline might have done when he had been sick or sorrowing. Then she said softly, "You broke your word, little man."
There was a sharp pain and a flash of sparks in Rossamund's head.
His body jerked violently.
Then there was nothing for the longest time.
VIGILANCE AND VIGORANTS
To come back to awareness after you have been unconscious, especially if you have been unconscious for a long time, is an exceedingly odd experience. The first sensations Rossamund became aware of were his hearing and a great ache in his brain. Amid the sharp throbbing was a rushing whoosh that spun about in his head, rising till he almost understood its purpose, then descending back to nothing.
After who knows how long, he came to realize it was the sighing of wind in treetops; the voice of birds calling thin, lonely music; and the tap, tap, tap of a small scratching very close by. Smells returned: pine needles, wood-smoke and some worse stink. The sense of touch followed these other clarities as he felt his own weight pressing on something hard yet strangely yielding. He became aware that he had a hand, and that his hand was holding something that felt rough yet also soft-his scarf. He tried to move his hand and found that he could not. He was numb at every joint, frozen in every muscle. He could not even open his eyes.
It was then that memory returned. Rossamund forgot all the sensations he had just rediscovered, and was filled instead with the recollection of all that had just passed, the destruction of the poor Misbegotten Schrewd. He should not have cared. He should have rejoiced: one more triumph of everyday folk over the ancient oppression of the monsters. Yet somehow the foundling could not see much to cheer in it. Some poor ignorant slain just for being in the way.
Instead, a great sorrow set in his heart. What would Master Fransitart think of this? Rossamund had met his first nicker and come out of the experience a monster-lover. Unable to move or see, he lay filled with grief for some brutish giant he did not know and should not like.
A new sound broke in, right by his head. "I… hiss… hold that something must be done." It was the wheezing of that terrible leer Licurius. He was right by Rossamund, far too close for the foundling's ease. The boy's stomach churned in pure fright.
"I… I have done enough, don't you think? It was just a little spark to quiet him… but look now!"
This was Europe's voice-Europe, the mighty fulgar.
Europe, the slayer of innocents.
Europe, the electrocuter of children.
How powerfully uncertain he was of her now. So this is what she meant by a glorious "life of violence"!
"… Wheeze… What good is he? Just some squirming snot nobody wants.You spied how he cried for that beggar, shed real tears like a toddling lassss for some tottering great waste of a nicker.You did a'rightly with him, I say-we've got nought spare for a rotten little… hiss… sedorner like his-same-self there… hiisssss!"
Rossamund's soul froze. A sedorner? A monster-lover! That was one of the worst things to be called. Worse yet, they were quite clearly talking about him. What were they going to do to him?
Europe sighed a long, almost sad sigh. "Stay in the carriage and everything was good, that was all it needed… What is it with males and listening? I wonder how this would read in the panegyric of my life, that I shock bantling brats."
"All the more reason to repair the wreckage. We should slit his belly and spill his umbles right here and leave done with it… gasp…" The leer's voice rasped right by Rossamund's ear. "Or take his corpse and blame it on that ettin! A clear reputation is as good as a clear conscience, like you always say."
"Hush it, Box-face! You push too much! This circumstance does not warrant such brutal work. My word, leer! You are starting to scare me with your talk of slitting and spilling. It has gone from worse to worse these past months-is it possible your black old heart gets blacker still?"
The leer hissed, long and cruelly. The landaulet shook for a moment, as if there was a struggle. Was Licurius daring to tangle with the fulgar?
Europe gave a yelp. "Enough, now!"
Rossamund lay aware, terrified yet blind and paralyzed. With the shaking of the carriage, this terror rose unwanted from his gut to his throat and, though he tried to suppress it, it came out as a bubbling, whimpering cough.
Everything seemed to go even more still. Then, "Aah." Europe sounded relieved. "It appears he has returned to us. Good, good."
"… Wheeze… Don't be blubbering to me, then, Sparky," Licurius said, concluding their previous business with faintly wrathful tones, "when thisss'un places well-found blame on your pretty pate."
"Enough! Enough!" The lahzar's voice wavered briefly. "Cease your insolence and boil the water. You know I am sorely in need…"
With his little outburst, Rossamund found some capacity of movement return. He wrenched his eyes open in an instant and, as his neck still proved stubbornly immobile, rolled them around wildly, to know his fate.
He was lying under a blanket on one of the seats of the landaulet staring up at the clear sky pricked with early evening's first stars, through high, scruffy boughs-they were still in the forest. It was bitterly, breath-steamingly cold. He began to shiver. Europe was in her usual place on the opposite couch. Her hair was down and that big book she scribbled in was upon her lap. By her sat the lantern, already lit. She was looking at him with an expression he could not fathom, neither hostile nor tender. He blinked over and over at her, limbs twitching as he tried to get some use out of them.
"Good evening, little man," the lahzar said slowly, her arms folded, her right hand up and covering her mouth and chin. "Don't wriggle so.You will be able to move soon enough," she chided, as Rossamund's wriggling turned into writhing. He did not heed her, but struggled and strained to get his body to respond. Now that they knew he was alive-that he was awake-he did not want to remain vulnerable one moment longer!
Europe leaned over and placed a hand upon his shoulder. At this he yowled mightily. Europe herself shied, genuinely startled.
Licurius came over to see about the commotion. "What a noisy little toad!" he growled, gripping the foundling hard about his throat. "Hush it, basket… wheeze… or you'll die here and now!" All sound was pressed from Rossamund as the leer clenched tighter and tighter, the boy's cry changing to a panicked gurgle.
"Let go of him, Licurius! This instant!" Europe glared at her factotum.
The leer ignored her completely. "Come on, little girl, squeal like you did when I had yer by the ankles…!"
His arms jerking uselessly, Rossamund tried desperately to squash the man's hand between his chin and throat.
"How dare you, leer! You serve my ends, not I yours!" The fulgar half stood, her hair beginning to bristle with static, the book sliding from her lap to the floor of the landaulet with a thump. "Let go your hold and step back! We have not the time for this and I have not the patience!"
For a moment longer Licurius seemed set on ignoring his mistress, then suddenly loosened his grip and turned to peer over his left shoulder. He stepped away, then hesitated, hissing, "That's not right…" He plainly sniffed at the air, the sound of it coming clearly from the many holes in the sthenicon.
Rossamund squirmed away as best he could, to the other side of the carriage, tears coming from eyes and nose.
"You wear thin, laggard," Europe hissed in turn. "What is it now?"
The leer did not answer but stood for many strained minutes: sniffing, listening, sniffing yet more. Europe began to growl, ever so softly, impatient with his silence.
"There's something amiss on the wind, m'lady. Somethin' unsettling… away down there." He gestured into the trees.
The fulgar sat back rubbing her face as if she was vexed by a headache. "Well, you go and see what it might be," she sighed, "and I'll finish the treacle myself, shall I? Now go on with you then!"
The leer hesitated again. He gathered his cloak about himself and stalked off, passing quickly through a black gap between rough trunks.
Rossamund could not hear anything but the pound, pound, pound of his pulse in his ears, nor, more particularly, smell anything that he might call "amiss" or "unsettling." He was relieved beyond expression simply to be released from the murderous intentions of that wicked man. Though he breathed heavily, he became still.
In the quiet the fulgar watched the forest. "He'll be gone a goodly while, I'm sure, so we have some time to get you all back to how you should be." Her voice was tired. "Do you have any restoratives or vigorants? I would give you some of mine, child, but that they are made particularly for my… peculiar constitution… and I doubt whether that crusty old leer would let you at any of his." She wiggled her arching eyebrows at him as if they were together in some conspiracy.
Wanting to keep her in this current friendly mood, Rossamund managed a weak grimace and, with numbness lessening and movement returning, nodded once.
"And where might they be?"
Rossamund grimaced as he tried for the first time to speak. "S… S… Saa… Satchel…!" With great effort he tried to sit up. Europe reached over to help him. He shrank from her touch and slid back down the slippery seat. She saw his discomfort and, taking her hands off him with a false-sounding "There you go," took up his satchel and sat back. A powerful exhaustion settled over Rossamund as he finally succeeded in sitting up, and he watched as the fulgar fossicked about in his belongings. After a moment she pulled something from the satchel. She held out her hand. There were the sacks of bothersalts, amazingly dry and potent again, after their dunking in the Humour had made them into pointless slop.
What remarkable things Craumpalin's chemistry can do.
"Useful." Europe cocked her head. "But not what we require."
She went back to rummaging, at one point pulling out the mash that had been his traveling papers and folding money, still damp and starting to smell. "There's a mystery," she said, placing the sodden lump on the seat beside her. A few moments more and she produced what she sought: small, familiar, milky bottles with the deep blue? and Craumpalin's mark of C-R-p-N.
"Ah-ha! I'd recognize these anywhere." She held one out. "Evander water-'good for all.' Somebody likes you, little man, to be prescribing this. Both vigorant and restorative in one happy draft. Glorious day! Open up and don't mind the taste."
Rossamund knew what they were and blessed the old dispensurist in his heart-as he had already, many times-for his generosity.
She broke the red wax seal and reached over to administer the restorative. If it had not come from his own belongings, had he not recognized his own bottles, he would never have let the fulgar so much as wave the stuff in his direction. Even so, he was still uneasy. As his lips came to the bottle, the smell of its contents rushed up his nose. Strong and sharp, it took away the heaviness and brightened his thoughts. Contrary to its smell, however, it tasted remarkably bland. If Rossamund was ever to eat chalk, he would have said that evander water tasted like that, a liquid with the flavor of powder. He was dosed with the whole bottle, about three swallows, and quickly began to improve-muscles loosened, vision cleared, the pain in his head lessened markedly. He arched his back and stretched his arms out and up with a groan, twisting his neck back and forth. Finding Europe watching him, he ducked his head self-consciously and offered a muttered thank-you to the lahzar.
The fulgar waved a hand. "Tish tosh!"
He saw the little container of whortleberries and, with a cautious eye on the fulgar, took one. She watched him impassively and did not intervene. He ate eagerly. Now he felt much better: able to move once more, though still a little stiffly; no pain; able to see, able to flee-but to where? This forest was surely just as dangerous, and the leer would find him anyway.
"Well, now." Europe seemed fidgety. "I absolutely must do the brewing. Stay! I'll be back presently. Tomorrow we'll be coming to a wayhouse, so you can have that to look forward to.You'll be much… happier there, I'm sure."
Rossamund did not doubt her.
As the fulgar climbed down from the landaulet bearing her black occult box, a noise came, distant yet distinct, from the direction of Licurius' exploration. Looking toward the sound with a frown, Europe stepped to the ground. "That can't bode good," she observed.
The sound came again-a series of sounds really. To Rossamund it was like someone thrashing about in the undergrowth. He opened his mouth to ask, but Europe silenced him with the palm of a hand. Though she held it there only for a moment, Rossamund noticed five small lumps upon her bare palm, raised and discolored like moles. He had no idea what they were.
The fulgar took something out of the black box and put it in her mouth, just as she had before the last fight. She grimaced in much the same way too as she chewed, putting the box back in the landaulet and adjusting the lantern, making it brighter. All the while she stared in the direction of the noises.
Was there going to be another fight?
Rossamund craned his neck, wide-eyed once more at an approaching, invisible threat. They were in a clearing just off the side of a road that crested this hill. All about were closely growing pines with only the narrowest space in between each trunk. The thrashing came closer through those small gaps.
Europe stirred up the fire, put on another log: she was trying to make more light. Far from wanting to hide from any danger, unlike Rossamund she wanted to see what was to come, confident of mastering any event. Pacing between the landaulet and the flames, she buckled up the frock coat, never taking her gaze off the wall of trunks.
There was a flash and a loud fizzing close by-some way to the right of where the leer had departed. Bright and blue, the trees obscuring it shown as black, stark poles. Rossamund almost fell over in fright and shrank down into the seat, peering over its edge. More thrashing about, the crashing of a heavy thing pushing through thin boughs. Smaller whippings. Closer, closer. Something appeared on the edge of the light.
It was Licurius!
The leer's tricorn was gone, his cloak badly torn, ripped almost from his frame, his sthenicon half wrenched from his face, yet he still clutched a pistol. Shocked, Europe took a step toward him. Bloodied and torn, he staggered into the clearing and, with a shuddering wheeze, rasped in the loudest, hoarsest whisper he possessed, "M'lady, we are attacked!"
The dark erupted in shrieks and yells, one of them Rossamund's own as he gave cry to his fear. The landaulet jerked violently, throwing Rossamund from the seat to the floor as the horse started in fright at this assault and tried to bolt. Hobbled and hitched, it could not get far at all. After only a couple of yards, the carriage halted suddenly with a strangled whinny from the horse, tumbling the boy within about once more. He scrambled along the floor and peeked over the side.
Shadows dashed and darted on the fringes of the camp. Things with big heads and little bodies were pouring out from between the trees with triumphant yammering-hard to see despite the fire and lamplight. They overwhelmed Licurius as he turned to defend himself. Down he went, firing his pistol as he fell, pressed under a multitude of gnashing, nipping bogles. Europe cried wordlessly, yet before she could intervene, she too was set upon by many small terrors. They tore at her viciously, trying to pull her down too, shrieking "Murderer! Murderer!" in shrill unison. She swatted each one as it came, throwing several off at a time with that powerful Zzack! that declared the fulgar was about her gruesome work. She stepped and pranced with venomous speed, spinning, striking, her eyes wide and wild, her hair standing on end, frock coat hems flying dramatically-as they were clearly meant to do-showing many-layered white petticoats beneath. It was a great spectacle of flickering sparks to see the fulgar fighting in the night. Every nasty, gripping horror that got a hold was soon sent flying, almost every strike she made giving a brisk crack! and a brilliant flash like little lightning. Several times one of the beastly little things was sent hurtling to its end with a great arc of electricity strobing in blinding green between it and the fulgar. In each brief glare the whole night scene would be quickly lit like a glimpse of day. None could best her. Even if they did get a good hold, the needlelike teeth and cruel claws of these grinning fiends proved almost useless against her stout proofing.
It was not over for the leer either.
There was a bright, hissing flare from beneath the writhing pile of bogles that sent them reeling and filled the air with a putrid stench-surely some powerful repellent. Licurius stood among them, dark and wet with gore, smashing one a deadly blow with the handle of his pistol. The sthenicon was gone, torn off in the brutal fray. The leer glared about with his terrible eyes and struck out again, causing something to yowl piteously. Amid all the confusion and alarm, Rossamund was, for a moment, transfixed by the leer's face! His horrible, indescribably broken face! Little wonder he wore that box! There was another fizzing, hissing flash as Licurius let off another repellent, driving a handful of the nickers hollering in agony back into the woods. But the rest came at him, leaping up, clutching, gouging, tearing at exposed places, bearing the leer down under their ferocity. Licurius disappeared once more beneath the whelming assault.
He did not rise again.
Europe fought on and on, heedless of anything but the deadly, desperate dance she played with her many foes. Some of the grinning horrors now lay still and smoldering; many had run off in dismay. Still she faced a baker's dozen more gathering themselves after the leer's fall. She saw him then, her factotum, or what was left of him. Rossamund had watched as the nickers wrenched and ripped at the leer until they were convinced he was destroyed-declaring their success with bloodcurdling cackles and whoops of glee. Now only a dark, deformed pile remained.
The sight of it brought Europe up short. She stood now, panting, seething, almost growling. With wide, near-maniacal eyes, she stared across the fire at thirteen little grinning bogles who waited and glared back, snickering, poking and prodding each other. These grinnlings had large heads with big, square ears, no noses and lipless mouths crammed with needle teeth. And, remarkably, they wore clothes-small copies of human fashion: shirts, coats, breeches, even little buckled shoes.
For a moment it remained like this, the enemies eyeing one another. Rossamund had expected an exchange of words, of taunts or threats, but there was just this dreadful, pregnant hesitation punctuated by the distant wailing of wounded, fleeing grinnlings. The campfire crackled, the small cauldron on it hissing quietly with boiling water.
The universe waited…
Europe shifted her stance.
With cacophonous screeching, the thirteen grinnlings suddenly bounded over and around the fire. The fulgar kicked at the first as it vaulted the flames, sending it hurtling back the way it had come with a great blinding lightning flickering from Europe's boot sole to the bogle. She immediately sprung back, making room, and smote the next two who reached for her: right hand striking left, left hand striking right, slapping one in the face-Zzack! — and thumping the other square in its chest-Zzick!
Three down, ten to go!
Rapidly sidestepping to her left, avoiding grasping claws, the fulgar poked the next gnashing nicker right in its eyes, sending sparks from its ears and a squeal from its throat that expired to a gurgle.
Now the remnant grinnlings pounced as one, grappling with her together-on her back, about her legs, tugging on her arms. Rossamund waited for them to fall to their sparking doom, but instead Europe appeared to contort violently, staggered by some dark, internal force greater than those nine grinnlings could muster. Her back arched involuntarily. Her head thrown back, she screamed. The grinnlings hesitated but remained unharmed. With cackles and evil whoopings they pressed this new advantage, biting, gouging, ripping.
Rossamund's thoughts raced. He had to do something! He looked about wildly for a weapon-something, anything. The bothersalts! Snatching up the satchel, he leaped from the carriage, madly digging about within the bag for the small hessian sacks. He dashed to the fight, the bothersalts still undiscovered. In the dimming light he could see Europe being pulled to the ground just as Licurius had been.
Shortly it would be over.
There they are! He grabbed at the sacks roughly, ripped them out and hurled them in one complete move-all thoughtless, terrified instinct. The repellents flew remarkably true, bursting their powder over the murderous gang just as one of the grinnlings caught sight of the foundling. There was a great chorus shriek as the bothersalts did their work. Some of the grinnlings left off their rending to paw instead at their now burning faces. Others were simply distracted by this attack from an unexpected quarter. Europe too was engulfed in the acrid assault, but through her pain and her dazzled senses she still had enough pith to give one final, might-be-suicidal burst of electricity. Several grinnlings fell, expiring instantly. For the rest, this was too much: wrathful sparks from one side, bitter chemistry on the other. They fled screaming, every last one, their howls diminishing as they retreated farther and farther as fast as their little legs could carry them.
They had done it! They had won…
On the needle-matted ground, with many dead grinnlings sprawled about and a tendril of smoke rising from her back, Europe had collapsed, dreadfully still, dreadfully silent.
DABBLINGS IN THE DARKNESS
Trembling, and ignoring the dead bogles, Rossamund crept closer to the fallen fulgar. His heart teetered on the brink of complete terror at the thought of being left alone in this malignant place. As he neared her, he bent lower and ever lower, trying to see her face, trying to gain some hopeful hint of her condition. She lay twisted, limbs carelessly poking every which way, long hair a wispy mess obscuring her whole head. Holding back for just a moment, he knelt beside her and gingerly poked some of her chestnut locks away from her throat, cheek and brow. She was deathly pale.
Grinnling cries in the distance.
Rossamund scurried to the landaulet, took the lantern and dashed back to where the fulgar lay. He knelt and looked to see if she was still alive, wanting to weep but holding it in-he had cried enough on this journey. Blood was running from Europe's nose. There were nasty bites upon her neck where the proofing did not cover. Breaths did come: short, shallow puffing. She lived!
Rossamund leaned closer and whispered, "Miss…! Miss… Miss Europe…!"
The fulgar's lashes fluttered and slowly parted, her vision clearly swimming. They shut again and it seemed she might slip into insensibility. Rossamund pressed twice, sharply, on her shoulder, not wanting her to pass out. She groaned and shifted, opening her eyes again to peer at him.
With a gasp, Europe pushed herself up on her arms and sat, head lolling, hair drooping. "What happened?" she panted.
Rossamund sat back. "You won… you beat them all."
She looked about, blinking heavily. Her eyes were streaming with ash-colored tears.
Rossamund winced. He had hit her with the bothersalts too.
After a long pause and a deep sigh, she whispered, "Good… They were… difficult." Sitting up straighter, she flexed her shoulders and rolled her head about, grunting and grimacing. "My organs have spasmed," she breathed cryptically. "Not the best time for it, at all… I thought I was done for." Pausing for a rattling wheeze of air, she muttered, "Never advisable to… start a fight… when one is missing a… a dose of treacle."
Though he did not follow what she said, Rossamund nevertheless understood that something had gone very wrong somewhere inside her body, that her electrical organs had somehow failed her in a most terrible way. He shuddered. This must be what dear Master Fransitart had meant when he said that there was nothing more wretched than lahzars made sick by their organs.
Far away, the wailing of the grinnlings could still be heard in the cold, cold night.
Europe tried to rise but swooned frighteningly, and fell back to ground. "I… need… my treacle, little man," she slurred. "Take the lantern. Get the box. I'll… I'll show you how to make it."
The foundling ran over to the landaulet and, as he did, discovered that the chestnut nag had been attacked as it attempted escape. Slain, it now lay with many nasty wounds to its neck, point and chest. How were they going to get away now?
Hold to your course. People's lives are at stake, Rossamund coached himself. Do as Master Fransitart would have-everything in its right order. Box first-leaving later.
Rossamund found her curious black case in the now jumbled contents of the landaulet's interior. As he extracted it, the feeling of sickly unease moved within once more as he gripped the smooth wood. He ignored the sensation and returned to her side with it gripped determinedly under his left arm.
The fulgar had fainted and he was forced to rouse her once more. She came to with effort, even wiping away tears. "Good man… N… Now, I need you to listen… most carefully-we have not the time for mistakes."
Rossamund nodded once, emphatically. This was not some pamphlet story. This was a time for diligence and dependability. This was the very thing they sought to teach all the book children at Madam Opera's-the very thing expected of you when you have been given your baldric to wear.
The fulgar drooped, gathered herself and continued. "Put the box down and open it… carefully, though. That… that's the way."
Within the box were many compartments, each with its own hinge-and-handle lid, and lined with scarlet velvet. He peeked under one. There was a bottle of liquid within, nestled in straw.
"That's the bezoariac. There's no time to do this neatly or make it pretty." She opened another compartment and pulled forth another bottle, this one half-filled with a dark powder. She put both bottles in Rossamund's hands and with them a pewter spoon. Then she indicated the cauldron boiling on the fire. "Take these and put two spoons of the bezoariac… the liquid-and one of the rhatany… the other bottle… the powder-and stir them into the water for some minutes, then… come back to me… Make sure there is enough water. Anything over half-full will do."
He did as he was bidden. The cauldron still held enough water, so in went two spoonfuls of the bezoariac-a kind of universal antidote he had seen used in the dispensary of the marine society-and the rhatany powder-which he had not heard of before. He stirred and stirred, knowing well just how it was done because of Master Craumpalin's patience and pedantry. Figures-of-eight, making sure it did not catch and burn on the bottom of the pot. All the while his back tingled with the dread that the grinnlings might pounce once more from the shadows.
"What does it look like?" the lahzar quizzed quietly. Her voice was muffled, for she had collapsed again and was lying with her head buried in her arms.
"It was like porridge for a moment, but it has now gone thin and reddish," the foundling replied.
"Does it boil?" Europe raised her head.
"Aye, ma'am, it has just started."
She reached over without looking and took out a jar from the box.
"Quickly then, add this. Use your fingers but do not put that spoon within this jar! Understand? There needs to be the… same amount as two spoonfuls of it."
Rossamund did as he was asked, even though the unpleasant feelings these reagents gave him were increasing with each moment as he scooped cold, foul-feeling muck from the jar. Scraping off the correct measure twice onto the spoon, he plopped it into the bubbling brew. Disgusted, he wiped his fingers on some pine needles, then stirred yet more. As he did, Europe held out another bottle two-thirds full of a black powder. The sense of terrible foreboding radiated most strongly from this little jar.
"When the curd is properly mixed and thick and even and turned to honey, you must take it off the flame, then sprinkle in half a spoonful of this. It's Sugar of Nnun-don't let it touch your skin! Mix it well in… and when that's done… bring it to me."
Sugar of Nnun! He had certainly heard of this ingredient, though he did not know what it did. Craumpalin had condemned it in no uncertain terms, stating once that only people up to no good had any business messing with it. Had their situation been any less desperate, Rossamund might well have refused to even hold the bottle containing such stuff, so thoroughly had the old dispensurist warned him.
The brew indeed became very much like the consistency and color of honey, even causing his stomach to rumble, deprived of dinner-and maybe some other meals-as it was. He quickly lifted the cauldron off the fire by its handle, using a handy stick, and placed it on the ground.
With a sharp sickliness in the back of his mouth, Rossamund removed the stopper of the bottle holding the Sugar of Nnun. He felt sure he could see an evil puff of black dust come out from within. Squinting, he nervously tapped the right amount onto the spoon, and this he mixed into the brew. As it was stirred in, the whole lot quickly turned black, became even thicker and began to stink disgustingly.
The potion was ready.
Rossamund took off his scarf and used this to carry the cauldron to the lahzar. "It's ready, I think, Madam Europe. I don't know if I have got it right, but it seems just like it did before."
Unsteadily, Europe got to her knees and scrutinized the result of the foundling's dabblings. When she saw the brew looking very much as it should, she seemed stunned, even as ill as she was. "Well done, little man," she breathed. "Well done… That is exactly it." She snatched the brew-the treacle, as she had called it-and, waiting only a moment for the edge to be cooler, drank greedily, taking great gulps and spilling some, surely burning herself on the hot metal. The effect of the potion was rapid. Not putting the pot down till it was empty, she had a healthy look in her eye when she did. After only a few minutes of breathing heavily and digesting, the fulgar had recovered enough to stand. She wobbled as she did, but with the foundling boy's hand to hold on to she was soon on her feet. She was still for a moment, swaying somewhat-to Rossamund's alarm-but staying upright and staring into the dark silence of the forest.
The woods were now quiet, but for what Rossamund hoped were the usual treeish creaks and whispers.
"We must be leaving," said Europe. "They will most certainly be back for another try before the night is out." She hushed as the foundling repacked the black case with its frightful chemicals.With a great sigh, she turned to gaze at the place where the ruins of what-was-once-Licurius lay. Grief worked in her soul and showed on her face. "Oh, Box-face… Oh, Box-face…" she lamented quietly. "What have they done to you?"
With Rossamund to help her, she staggered over to the leer's body. In the nimbus of the lantern, the grisly proof of the violence just passed showed clearly. There the bodies of two grinnlings lay where they had fallen, slain by Licurius' hand. No longer animated by foul and murderous intent, they looked small, pathetic, doll-like. In their midst was the black huddle of the dead leer. Though he was mostly covered with his torn cloak, it was still obvious that he had been ripped and gouged in cruel and vile ways.
With a choking sob, Europe sagged and dropped to her knees near the corpse. She swooned for a moment, panting heavily, pushing Rossamund weakly from her. "You must not look on this!" She stood straighter. "Go! Get your personals and ample water for one night's travel. We must be away very shortly, and not delay-those creatures have gone silent, and I like that much less than their distant jitterings. I will right myself presently. Have no concern for me: our survival is afoot now."
Nevertheless, and though she would not like it known, Rossamund was aware that Europe wept silently as he gathered his valise and satchel, filled his biggin with water and his pockets with food. She must have cared more for the leer than the foundling had ever noticed. He felt sad for her, and for the Misbegotten Schrewd. For the leer, however, he entertained no regrets-the villain had tried to strangle him! This is what Verline would have sternly called "a hard heart," but Rossamund could not see how he might possibly feel anything at Licurius' end.
Presently Europe came over to the landaulet too, stumbling only slightly, her face dirty with tearful streaks, and hurriedly organized her own traveling goods. With the horse dead there was nothing for it-they would have to walk their way to safety.
"We must leave… him where he lies. There's no time to bury him and no profit in bearing him away. We must go to the wayhouse. I've passed it by many times but never entered. The Harefoot Dig it is called. When we get there and settle ourselves safely, we can come back here to… to fetch him. Move on, now! We must be at the wayhouse as soon as we can!"
Gathering all which was needful that they could carry on foot, they set off by lantern light, Europe pointing the way, Rossamund leading it. How they were to make it, the foundling had no hopeful idea. There was a sandy, bepuddled road running right by their camp-probably still part of the Vestiweg. They walked along this, the fulgar unsteady at first but soon gaining pace, though not speedily enough for him. The fulgar had to caution him to save his energy when sometimes he marched on ahead, reminding him that they had a long way yet to travel.
Soon she made Rossamund douse the lantern. "The light will be more harmful than helpful," she whispered, "and lead the grinning baskets right to us."
He complied eagerly at this warning. What hope did an everyday boy like himself have if a lahzar was cautious and wishing to avoid any new confrontations? In the dark he vainly tried to see into the benighted forest, to see past the straight pale trunks of the pine saplings that lined the road, to find warning of any possible ambush. He could feel that Phoebe was up and shining, but deep in that narrow channel of high trees, her light helped but a little. Oh for Licurius' nose now! After they had trod for many hours and what was surely a great distance, Rossamund was most certainly tiring. His feet dragged, and the valise, normally so light, pulled meanly on his back and aching shoulders. His lids drooped as his thoughts lolled with warm, comfortable ideas of stillness and rest.
Europe seemed to sag as well; eventually, to his great relief, she stopped near the top of a steep hill and sat down clumsily. "Aah!" she wheezed so very quietly. "I am flagging terribly… How about you, little man? You have kept pace with me admirably till now."
He dropped next to her, dumping the valise on the verge, and took a long swig of water from his biggin. Only a few mouthfuls more remained when he was done. Taking this as a wordless but definite yes, the fulgar offered him a whortleberry procured from one of the many black leather satchels and saddlebags. Then she chewed on one herself. He took it gratefully. They sat some minutes in silence while the internal glow of the berries restored them enough to allow them to push on. Rossamund's senses sharpened again and with them his fears of another attack by the grinnlings or, perhaps, worse things.
A firm conviction was beginning to form in his deepest thoughts: that it would be the grandest thing to return to the safety and forgetful ease of a city and leave all this threwdish wild land behind. How could anyone have ever thought it prudent to put a road through such a place as this haunted region?
The land fell away sharply from the northern edge of the road and upon its steep slope no trees grew, affording them a limited view. At last Rossamund could see the moon, ocher-yellow and setting in the west. He turned about quietly where he was and observed the white line of the road they had already traveled as it emerged from the trees. He looked with dread at the impenetrable black of the tangle-wood valleys directly below and, beyond that, the low dark hills further north. He quaked slightly-anything could be stalking about out there. The world was so much bigger than he had ever thought: wilder, and full of threats and loneliness and dread. He hugged his knees to his chest and waited, afraid, staring at the fulgar's shadow.
As they sat, she fidgeted with the scarf about her neck and with the wound beneath. "Are you better?" she whispered.
"Aye," he whispered back. "Your neck, miss?"
"It bleeds still… and it is starting to itch awfully. I believe it may well need seeing to by a physic. That will have to wait. Let's be off again. We still have far to go and this place is starting to get me down."
The dose of whortleberry had invigorated them both heartily: they walked and walked, and walked yet more, Europe leading onward. The road rose over hills and dropped into small valleys. The forest soon closed in again and they were surrounded now by several kinds of pine. The air was still, filled with the strong smell of sap and the hissing of breezes in the branches. Stars continued to shine brightly and shed some little light on their path from the glimpse of sky above. Of the Signal Stars, Maudlin was now absent, having passed beyond view; only orange Faustus, the "eye" of the constellation Vespasia, and the yellow planet Ormond showed, and they showed that it was very late indeed. A frightened baby owl screeched thinly, voicing Rossamund's own lost and lonely feelings. As he read the stars, he heard the fulgar stumble heavily in front of him, and looked down to see her sink to the sandy path.
He hurried to her. "Miss Europe…?"
She was on her hands and knees, panting as she had done after her organs had spasmed. "The bite… the bite…" she rasped.
Rossamund carefully unwound the scarf from her neck and saw, even by dim starlight, that the wound had swollen frighteningly, and even now was beginning to stink of putrefaction. He gasped. "It's going bad already, ma'am. You must surely see a physician, and soon!"
"It burns…!" She managed to sit, to lift a water skin to her mouth and drink greedily before lying back and panting yet more. "We must go on… you're not safe… we… Not long… must…" she rattled on, though she did not seem able nor any longer willing to move.
Rossamund's mind whirled for a time. This panicked feeling was becoming all too familiar. He forced himself to be even-headed.
The evander water! He sat down by Europe and dug about in his satchel for the little flasks. He searched for the longest time with little satisfaction-oh no! — he must have hurled them along with the bothersalts in his hurry to help. But then he found what he wanted: just one bottle, buried right down at the bottom, tangled in among the rest of the contents. He gripped it exultantly. Leaning close to the fulgar's ear, he could feel heat radiating from her in a most unhealthy way. "I still have some evander water!" he whispered.
Europe revived with this intelligence and forced herself to sit up.
He gave her the little bottle, but her hands shook too much now. Indeed, her whole body was beginning to shudder. He held the flask for her, removed the seal and tipped it very slowly, mindful lest it should spill and be wasted. She swallowed it all as greedily as she had the water and then lay back again. He watched her, holding his breath anxiously.
With a burst of air from her own mouth-loud enough to startle some night bird, which shrilled terrifyingly three times and flurried off-she sat up once more. "I can walk… We've not… not got far… to… to… go now… Help me up, Box… Box-face." Her words came in struggling breaths. "With your… help… I can… can make it."
Putting a hand on his shoulder, she pushed herself up to stand. Rossamund grimaced but did not make a sound. When she had righted herself, she murmured, "Lead… on…"
He struggled earnestly to fulfill this task, at first leading her by the hand, gripping it tightly now, completely heedless of being sparked. Then he began limping himself as she started to lean heavily or pull upon him, often stumbling, silently cursing every stone or rut that threatened to trip one of them.
Interminable seemed these last few miles, though the way had, mercifully, become flatter. At one point Rossamund thought he heard the far-off tittering of the grinnlings and urged Europe on a little faster. The further they went the more fatigued he grew and the more insensible Europe became. She muttered odd things-often in another strange, musical language-at one time saying clearly, "We've been in many scrapes, haven't we, darling…?" She actually chuckled, then became dangerously louder. "But we get away scot-free every time, hey… hey Box-face? You and me… we… making it large all over the land…" It seemed she might go quiet, but suddenly she blurted, "Oh my! What have they done to you!" and began to sob, great, deep gulps that wracked her whole body. "What have they done to you?" she hissed finally and continued to weep. She said no more that night.
Soon Europe collapsed completely, toppling Rossamund with her in a flurry of sweat and perfume, stunning him. He lay for a moment half under the fulgar, his head full of spinning lights. He never thought a woman could weigh so much.
The soft hooting of a boobook went hoo-hoo, hoo-hoo. It was a peculiarly soothing sound and he focused on it to stay awake. There was nothing for it-he had to drag her. Hardly believing where he was or what he was doing, he pulled himself out from under her, fixed a saddlebag under her head, grabbed her by her booted ankles with a foot tucked under each arm and began to walk. Pulling, pulling, finding energy he did not know he had, he dragged the fulgar. Her shoulders ground noisily and her petticoats rumpled and gathered and began to tear, but he could do nothing about either now. He must trust to her proofing, ignore her indignity and simply go on.
Despite the noise and his agony and the desperate slowness of their pace, Rossamund pulled Europe, bags and all, along the road till his fingers clawed and the eastern horizon grew pale. The trees began to grow farther apart, a fringe to the main wood, and as he gradually came around a bend in the road, he thought he saw lights through the sparse trunks. He pulled on a little bit farther and found that it was lights, lantern lights. He stopped to gather himself, gasping in air, and peered at this new sight.
There, in the obscure gray of a new day, he found what they sought: a long, heavy stone wall of great height on the left, protruding from the thinning trees. In a gap about two thirds along this wall and crowned with a modest arch was a solid ironwood gate. Above it was a post fixed horizontally from the apex of the arch, a bright-limn lantern at its far end, shining orange. Dependent from this post was a gaily painted sign. It showed what looked like a woman running or leaping and beneath this the barely legible letters:
… It was the wayhouse. They had arrived at last.
AT THE HAREFOOT DIG
The entrance of the Harefoot Dig would not open when Rossamund pushed upon it with his shoulder. Undaunted, he carefully lay Europe's feet down. Without quibbling over whether it was polite at so early an hour, he hammered with the wrought knocker of the ironwood gate as loudly as his exhausted arms would allow. Indeed, he could only just lift them to grasp the knocker.
Eventually a round grille high in the gate emitted a gruffly quizzing voice. "Whot's this 'ere, then? Whot's yar business at this throodish hour?" It was a strange accent Rossamund had never heard before-a little like Poundinch's yet different again. It was hard to understand.
"I have a… a friend who's hurt!" Rossamund called up to the grille in his deepest, most certain-sounding voice. "We have escaped an attack in the Brindleshaws! We need help!"
There were slidings, there were scrapings. There was a muffled conversation.
"I see…" the grille returned eventually. "An' whot's a scamp like yarsalf doing up so late-or so eerly, if yar'll 'ave it at that-in risky places an' with no hat on his noggin?"
Rossamund sighed. "I lost it in the river. Please, sir, my friend is very, very ill and she needs a physician quickly!"
"A lass, yar say? We cain't have a sickly lass stuck out there. Stay yar ground."
One of the gates opened and a short man came out. He was almost as broad across the shoulders as he was tall, and wearing, of all things, a chain mail shirt over the top of longshanks and jackboots.
"Let's 'ave a look at 'er, then," this stocky gatekeeper said as he stepped onto the road. He glanced about with a quick but shrewd eye and then down at the stricken fulgar. "Blast me! That won't do at all. Pretty lass too."
The stocky gatekeeper picked the fulgar up under her shoulders, as if her weight was of little consequence. She stirred, but little more. He directed an "Oi…" over his shoulder. This prompted another person to move out from the shadows of the gateway. It was a woman, a dangerous-looking woman glowering into the dark spaces all about, ready for a fight. She was tall and wore a strange-looking coat-of-many-tails. She looked to the other gater, then at Europe in his arms and, with no further prompting, stepped over with swaggering grace and took the fulgar by the ankles. As this woman obediently hefted Europe by her boots, Rossamund saw that the backs of her hands were marked in strange brown filigree. It was the quickest glimpse but it fixed his vague attentions. Monster-blood tattoos! She was a monster-slayer too. Beneath her left eye was a line of spikes, spoors of some unknown profession.
Not too gently they carried Europe through the gate, the short fellow saying over his shoulder, "'Ere, grab 'er chattels an' all, an' follow me. I'm the gater,Teagarden-I look after the gate, see-at yar service. Whot's yar name, boy'o?"
"Rossamund," he answered simply as he gathered up Europe's fallen saddlebags. He could barely grip the straps. His hands cramped, neither shut nor open.
He was vaguely aware of a brief but pronounced pause.
"Oh. Yar pardon, lass. Mistaked yar fer a lad in this darkling hour." This Teagarden fellow actually sounded embarrassed.
Rossamund did not quite know what to say. His exhausted mind offered no assistance. "I, ah… that's all right, I am a boy."
Another pause, even more uncomfortable than the first.The woman bearing Europe's legs gave Rossamund an odd look.
Teagarden coughed in a perplexity of even greater embarrassment. "Ah yes, right you are, and I knows it too, boy'o. 'Tis the paucity of light, methinks, playing tricks. This lass with me be Indolene-she's me fellow gater."
Rossamund, too wayworn to care, offered only what he hoped was a smile.
Behind the gate was a dim, confined coach yard. A yardsman hurried over with a lantern, his feet crunching noisily in gravel. The light was shone in Europe's face while the two gaters took her to an entrance in the large, low house before them.
She still breathed! Rossamund could see her cheeks puffing as he followed closely. However, her skin was a ghastly pale green, showing the deep blue spoor vividly. Great bruised rings sunk beneath each eye, while sweat ran freely from her brow and hair. She was unrecognizable. She was getting worse.
The yardsman gasped, ever so quietly. "Oi'll be! She's a lahzar!"
The lady gater seemed to scowl but continued in her work.
Teagarden whistled softly. "Upon me 'onor! Yar keep yar comp'ny strangely, boy'o. Still, thass neither here nor there-get her inside sharply, she looks fit to expire!"
The door they approached opened, casting an oblong of light on the scene. A lanky man in a maroon powder jacket and stocking cap stood there, looking tight-faced and beady-eyed. "What is all this huff and scuffle?" he demanded tetchily.
"We've got two new arrivals, sir," Teagarden offered respectfully, "an' this lady is poorly. Physic-needingly so, sir. She also be a lahzar, sir, so I'd thunk it best we come through the back ways to avoid raising an unnecessary alarum."
"Well, good, good, Teagarden, no need to wait for my permission, man, if you see a physician is needed." The lanky man, who was obviously of some importance at this establishment, seemed the type to be peeved no matter how he was answered. "Bring them in, man, bring them in. Don't wait for me to invite you. Hello there, my boy-you look most weary. Welcome to the Harefoot Dig. I am Mister Billetus, the proprietor.We will do all that we might for your mother, and for yourself too."
This Mister Billetus, the proprietor, took Rossamund by the hand and gave it a stiff shake. Europe was carried on within and down a passage of white daub and many doors. It looked very much like a servants' entrance.
"Now, fellows," Mister Billetus continued, "take the boy's poor mother to the Left Wing, Room Twelve." He addressed Rossamund. "'Tis the only room we have left for persons of quality as yourselves. Quality which, if I may be so bold, I can see you have in spades. Will it do?"
Rossamund had no idea if the room would or would not do. Any room was good as far as he thought. "Any room will do, sir. I just want her to be seen to by a physic…"
"Excellent, excellent. Of course, certainly. Go on, fellows," Mister Billetus said, turning to the gaters and yardsman, "the mother needs seeing to-get her to her room! Properato!"
Teagarden seemed reluctant, but said, "Right you are, sir. Ah…?"
"Like I said afore, sir, she be a lahzar."
The proprietor's eyebrows shot up. After brief reflection he recovered. "Well, I didn't make her that way, man. Money is money. Keep her hidden from my wife for now. What Madam Felicitine doesn't know won't hurt us! I'll sort the rest. Off to their room, now, now!"
Holding a pale bright-limn, Mister Billetus led them through a labyrinthine confusion of dark passages and darker doors.
A boy joined them and Mister Billetus said to him, "Ah-ha! Little Dog! There you are, you scamp! Now hurry and quick to Doctor Verhooverhoven's estates and bring the good physician back with you. No dawdling! Lives are in the balance."
Despite his fatigue, Rossamund thought it mightily untoward to send such a little fellow out while it was still dark. Little Dog did not seem happy about it either. Nevertheless he dashed off stoutly.
"The physician should be here within the hour," Mister Billetus said with open satisfaction. "Good, good, to your room we go."
Mister Billetus stopped by a door and looked at Rossamund just as a cat might coolly regard an agile mouse. "You, er, can afford these lodgings, can't you?"
Rossamund's heart skipped a beat. He thought on the expensive foods and fine upholstery of the landaulet-all of Europe's flaunted wealth-and declared, with a quick-witted rattle of his own purse, "Absolutely."
Billetus looked powerfully relieved. "Wonderful! So you won't object to settling a portion of your board in advance, then?"
"I, ah… no." The foundling hoped he was doing the right thing.
"Good, good. One night's billet, board and attendance for a room of such elegance-and I do believe, by the cut of your clothes, that elegance is in order-the board for such a room is six sequins, paid in advance for two nights. If you leave after the first night, then we happily reimburse you. So, we should count this as your first night-since indeed it is not over yet-and say, with a carlin and a tuck, that you will be paid up to the morning of tomorrow night. Agreed?"
Rossamund's overtaxed mind cogitated the sums: There's twenty guise to a sequin and sixteen sequins in a sou. So-two lots of six sequins was twelve sequins. A carlin is a ten-sequin piece and a tuck a two-sequin piece. Ten and two makes twelve-twelve sequins, again. I reckon it's right-sure is a lot, though… He thought his head might burst. "Aye… I think. Uh… thank you."
Mister Billetus held out his free hand, palm uppermost.
Rossamund looked at it dumbly for a while, then realized the proprietor was wanting payment now. The foundling fingered about in his purse, finding only the gold Emperor's Billion coin he had received on entering the lamplighter service, three sequins and a guise coin. He frowned, thought for a moment and then handed the gold billion to Billetus. The proprietor looked down at his payment with astonishment.
"Does-" Rossamund's voice caught in his throat. "Does that cover it?"
"Um… it's a little… irregular, but yes. It's certainly legal tender and covers the fare amply. It will even buy you breakfast for the mornings." Billetus pocketed the coin while he opened the door.
The room beyond was large and of a luxury the foundling did not think possible. There were two beds, their highly decorative heads against one wall, billowing linen and eiderdowns of the softest cotton. The floor was wooden boards polished till they were slick, the white walls and high ceiling-richly decorated with flutes and twirls-made buttery yellow in the lantern's glow. In the foundlingery a room of this size would have been used to bunk twenty, where this was meant for just two. Europe was being laid on the farther bed as Rossamund and the proprietor entered. A worn-looking blanket-looking out of place in its fine surroundings-was stretched upon this bed to stop the coverlets from being ruined by the fulgar's travel-grimed gear.
A maid, two tubs and several pitchers of steaming water arrived.
Mister Billetus excused himself and Rossamund bathed behind a screen while the maid attended to Europe behind another. He almost fell asleep in the tub, but the maid, finished with her attentions on the fulgar, woke him with an impatient cough. Before too long he was clean-cleaner than he had ever felt in his whole life, dressed in a nightgown and lying in a bed, the very softness of which swallowed him whole. Europe lay, much like he, bathed and in her bed, in a borrowed nightgown.
"Is she better?" Rossamund managed, vaguely aware that the maid was hovering about doing who knows what.
"She fares as well as she may, considerin'…" she hushed. "You can sleep, little boy-her state won't change just on your attentions."
Lamps were doused. The maid left. In the dimness of a growing dawn Rossamund watched the feverish Europe. He could not tell when or how, but in that soft, warm bed of the smoothest cotton, sleep finally took him. He awoke with a deep fright, released at last from churning nightmares of Licurius' bloody end. The room was too white, too bright, the ceiling too florid and the bed too strange. Then he realized where he was. Rossamund was beginning to tire of waking in strange places. Some comfort it was then that the bed was so soft and so warm. He stretched luxuriously, wrapped in its wholly unfamiliar feeling, then sat up and looked about. There was a tall window at the far end, its two panes flung open, letting in cold air and the birdsong of late afternoon that had brought him to reality. The world beyond it, of straight trunks and bare, tangled twigs, was wintry but golden with afternoon sun. The choir of birds-the soft, insistent cooing of some type of pigeon, the twitter-twitter of many small beaks and an unusual call going warble-warble-warble-chortle-was strangely loud and altogether foreign.
The room itself was empty, inasmuch as there was no one else walking about in it. However, the bed near him, on his left, before that open window, was occupied.
In it, of course, lay Europe.
He clambered out of his own and went to her side. She lay on her back, her head cushioned upon many marshmallowy pillows, the covers tucked right up under her chin. Her long hair had been gathered under a maid's cap just like one Verline would wear. Shivering as cold air blew in through the open window, bringing with it the smell of mown grass, he reached out, touching her smooth forehead with his forefinger.
The fulgar did not stir.
She felt cool now, in contrast to the feverish heat she had boiled with so recently. His curiosity mastering him, Rossamund cautiously stroked her spoor, the small diamond drawn so neatly above her left eye. Every side was straight and of equal length, the corners clear points, its bottom just meeting the hair of the brow. He had heard-he could not remember whether it was from Fransitart or somewhere else-that these spoors were made by using some acidic substance which left a permanent, yet somehow scarless brand. Why anyone would want to do something to themselves that sounded so painful was very puzzling: was it just vanity, or was it a warning? As far as he was concerned, the next time he saw a mark like this upon someone, he would be very wary of them. He stared at her blank, sickly face, hugging himself in the insufficient warmth of the borrowed nightgown, rubbing one foot against the opposite shin, then the reverse, to relieve the chill of the floorboards.
Suddenly he decided it was time to be dressed. He found his clothes in the cupboard, cleaned and pressed. Everything was there but his shoes. Rossamund got dressed, searching quietly all about the room as he did.
Where are those shoes?
Under his bed? No.
Under Europe's bed? No.
They were not in his closet, and so he went to the one that held Europe's effects. Her clothes had been washed too, and the cupboard was filled with the odor of the aromatics used to clean them. With this hung a sharp, honeylike scent he was beginning to recognize as Europe's own. He was sure he was doing something quite rude by even thinking of looking through the fulgar's belongings. He closed the closet quickly.
The door at the farther end of the room, of a wood so dark as to appear black, opened. In breezed a maid with a flurry of swishing skirts. When she saw Rossamund standing by the fulgar's bed, she seemed uncertain. She curtsied expertly, despite her burdens. "I've brought the doctor to see you, young master."
Rossamund ducked his head shyly.
A very serious and surprisingly young man entered the room. He was richly attired in a wonderfully patterned frock coat, flat-heeled buckled shoes known as mules, and a great white wig that stuck high in the air and left a faint puff of powder behind it.
"This is Doctor Verhooverhoven, our physician," the maid said, indicating the young man with a tray she carried, a tray holding two bowls of pumpkin soup that smelled so delicious Rossamund was immediately distracted by it. "And this, doctor, is uh, is…"
"Rossamund," said the foundling matter-of-factly.
"Ah… right you are, my… boy," said Doctor Verhooverhoven, squinting at him. "Delighted. How are you feeling?"
"Good, thank you."
"As it should be. I want you to have some of this soup that Gretel has kindly brought you," the doctor said as the maid placed the two bowls on a small table by the fire with a simpering blush. "I have fortified it with one of my personal restorative drafts, so it will see you righter than ever." He half turned to the maid. "You may leave now, Gretel. If I need anything, you will be the first to know."
The maid ducked her head, grinned at Rossamund and left again.
Doctor Verhooverhoven ambled over to the sickbed, hands behind his back. He stood over the unconscious lahzar and rocked back and forth on his heels. He checked the pulse in her neck, felt the temperature of her forehead, hmmed a lot and scrutinized her closely through a strange-looking monocle.
Rossamund sipped at his soup, which right then was about the sweetest thing he had ever had, and watched Doctor Verhooverhoven watching Europe.
At length the doctor turned his shrewd attention to the boy. "She is not your mother, is she, child?"
About to help himself to a mouthful of wonderful soup, Rossamund stopped with a slight splutter and fidgeted. "I-ah… No, sir-I never actually said that she was, though, sir. Others did… How did you…?"
Doctor Verhooverhoven adjusted his monocle. "How did I know, you were about to ask? Because you've got the Branden Rose here, my boy-heroic teratologist, infamous bachelorette and terror to the male of our species! She is not, if reputation serves, the mothering type! How, by the precious here and vere, did you come by her?"
The Branden Rose? That name was familiar to Rossamund, though he could not remember why. Perhaps he had read just such a name in one of his pamphlets? What a remarkable thing that would be to have fallen in with someone famous! He hung his head, feeling strangely uncomfortable. "She… saved me from a thirsty end-will she get better?"
"She ought to, child, with my skillful ministrations. I have been here since early this morning.You slept, my boy, while I scraped away the necrotic tissue and stitched that nasty gash about her throat. I have also balanced her humours and bled her a little against the disease of the wound. The only thing she needs now is that awful stuff her kind take-plaudamentum I believe it is called. I have sent out word for our local skold to be found, so it can be made. From my readings-which have by no means been extensive-a lahzar cannot go terribly long without it, two or three days at most… or things begin to go sour within." The physician rolled his eyes dramatically. "But, how-now, I need not frighten you with such detail."
Unfortunately, he had frightened Rossamund, though probably not in the way he had expected. Filled with urgency, the boy stood. "Do you mean her treacle, sir?"
"Ah-ha! That's the one. Cathar's Treacle! Just the stuff. When did she last have any?"
"Some time last night. I don't know when exactly, though, but I can brew it for her now, sir. I don't want her innards to go sour, and she's got all the makings."
The physician looked dubious.
"I made it for her the other night," Rossamund insisted. "If I've done it before, I can do it again…" The confidence in his own voice surprised him.
"Are you her factotum? You seem to me to be a little young for it." Doctor Verhooverhoven tapped at his mouth with his forefinger, eyebrows wriggling inquisitively.
"… No-sir, I'm not." Sometimes Rossamund almost regretted he found it so hard to lie.
"No? Ahh. We shall wait for this other to arrive then, shall we? She is a skold, and I am of the understanding that she knows how to make such a concoction." The physician took a high-backed chair from a corner and sat down on it by the fire.
"But why does she need it so badly?"
"A good question, my boy! A good question. Are you sure you want the answer?" Doctor Verhooverhoven looked very much as if he wanted to give it.
Rossamund indicated that he did want the answer.
"Of course you would. Well, you see-as I have read-when someone wants to become a lahzar, they usually take themselves off to a gloomy little city in the far south called Sinster. In that place there are butchers-'surgeons,' they insist on calling themselves-who will carve you up for a high fee. Are you following me?"
Rossamund nodded quickly.
"As you should, as you should. So, having gone this far-so the readings report-these surgeons take whole systems of exotic glands, bladders, vessels and viscera and sew them right in with all the existing entrails and nerves. Some say these new glands and such are grown for just this purpose, while others hold that they are 'harvested' from other creatures-no one agrees and the surgeons of Sinster aren't telling. Either way, when it is all done, the person is stitched back up again. Now-here comes the answer to your question-all these strange and exotic glands are wrong for the body. Consequently it reacts, eventually most violently, unless something is done to stop such a thing. That is the job of the plaudamentum-the Cathar's Treacle. Do you understand? They have to spend the rest of their lives taking the stuff every day to stop their natural organs from revolting against these introduced ones. This morbidity-this organ decay-once it takes hold, will eventually prove fatal. If this lady doesn't get hers soon, she will die. How-now, I think you'll find that covers it, anyway.Yes?"
As Rossamund took a breath to answer, he was distracted by an animated, angry-sounding conversation approaching the other side of the door that was then interrupted by a sharp knocking.
Doctor Verhooverhoven stood at this and called mildly, "Enter, please!"
The door was opened rapidly and a strange woman stalked in, wearing the elegant day-clothes of a refined lady, and on her face a frown of politely restrained anger.
Closely behind followed Mister Billetus, looking worried and chattering nervously even as they entered. "… Now, dearest, one guest's money is as good as another's. With these nickers making the High Vesting Way impassable, you know our visitors have been few. Every bit of custom is needful, m'dear, I…"
"Yes, yes, Mister Bill, not in front of those who do not need to be troubled with the finer points of running such a grand establishment. Good afternoon, Doctor Verhooverhoven." The woman grimaced at the physician in a mockery of a polite smile. He, in turn, bowed graciously, a puff of powder coming from his wig. She put her attention on Rossamund and said stiffly, "And you must be the smaller of our most recent arrivals. I am Madam Felicitine, the enrica d'ama of this humble yet refined wayhouse." As she said "refined," she looked sharply at Mister Billetus.
Confused, Rossamund simply stood blinking. "Enrica d'ama" was a fancy term for the ruling lady of a household, especially of a court. It was used only by those trying to be very grand.
"It has come to my notice," the enrica d'ama continued, addressing the physician, yet pointing angrily at the inert fulgar, "that we have here, in one of our finest apartments, a pugnator, one of the fighting riffraff. Is this true, sir?"
"Yes, gracious madam, it is-though to me her calling is of little concern. I heal all comers."
"Don't try to charm me, doctor. You share in this little sham of my husband's, though how he thought I would not know what was up soon enough is insulting at the least." She gave the harassed Billetus another quick glare. He offered an apologetic look to both Rossamund and Doctor Verhooverhoven, but did little else.
To Rossamund the scene was quickly becoming very strange and uncomfortable.
Doctor Verhooverhoven looked bemused. "I assure you, madam, that I am not aware of any sham so as to have a part in it to play. I have come as asked, to tend to an ailing guest. This is not the first time I have done this, as you well know." He finished his statement with a gracious half bow.
"Certainly not, but this is the first time you have invited here another almost as bad!" She turned to the door and called, "You may enter now, Gretel."
Gretel the maid came in as bidden, looking sheepishly at her mistress. Closely behind her shuffled a stranger: a short, meek-looking young woman-a girl really, younger than Verline-wearing a variation of clothing Rossamund had seen many times before. A skold! Upon her head was a conical hat of black felt that bent back slightly about a third of the way up. All skolds wore some style of cylindrical or conical headwear as a sign of their trade. About her throat and shoulders was the cape of white hemp with a thick, gathered collar that skolds pulled over their faces to protect themselves from the fumes of their potives. Upon her body she wore a vest called a quabard-light proofing Rossamund had seen in the uniforms of the light infantry of Boschenberg. One side was black and the other brown, the mottle of Hergoatenbosch, just like Rossamund's baldric. About her stomach, over the top of the quabard, was wrapped a broad swath of black satin tied at the small of her back in a great bow. About her hips hung cylinders, boxes, wallets and satchels-most certainly holding reagents and potives and everything else that skolds used in their fight against the monsters. Her sleeves were long and brown and flaring. Her wide skirt of starched brown muslin was also long, and it dragged upon the ground, hiding her feet. Her black doeskin-gloved hands were clasping and unclasping uncertainly in front of her.
He had already seen several skolds in his life, for many served at Boschenberg's docks to ward off any nickers that might rise out of the Humour and along the city's walls. Even so, Rossamund knew less now about them than he did fulgars. What he did know was what everyone knew: that they made all kinds of potions and drafts even more powerful and fabulous than those concocted by Craumpalin and other dispensurists, who were more concerned with health and healing. The chemistry of a skold, however, was designed for harm and violence. He knew that they had served as the Empire's monster-fighters-"pugnators" Europe had called them-for centuries before the advent of the lahzars. This young lady must have been the skold Doctor Verhooverhoven had mentioned, the one to make Europe's treacle for her.
For a pugnator she seemed very nervous.
With a look like triumph, Madam Felicitine returned her attention to the physician. "Doctor Verhooverhoven!" she demanded. "What business have you inviting such knavish individuals to my peaceful establishment? You know my delicate sensibilities won't tolerate such liberties, nor will they suffer the presence of such as these!" She pointed a bigoted finger at the skold, whose face reddened.
The physician looked very ill at ease.
"Dear wife," Billetus ventured bravely, forgetting her warning on saying things in front of those who did not need to know, "their account is well paid. They have been no real trouble, rather quiet in fact, as needs must. What possible harm is one hardworking, well-paying lahzar occupying a room she and her factotum can afford?"
The enrica d'ama's thin lie of civility failed her at last. "Oh frogs and toads! Because of the principle! She cannot…!"
"Please," the physician interjected in a low, insistent voice. "You'll wake her."
Madam Felicitine eyed him coldly but continued with deliberate calm. "She cannot stay here because if guests of genuine refinement were to learn that a person of violence and infamy was bunked in the suite next door, they would never return and advise others to do the same. I will not have this, oh no!" With a dark look at Doctor Verhooverhoven, she forced herself to be collected again. "No, no, the billet-boxes are the place for her, though I prefer the servant stalls for the likes of these, if they must stay here at all."
She then looked gravely at Rossamund, who was looking very grave himself. "Now it pains me, child, it truly does, but things must have their right place and order, people have their rank and station; some should not assert themselves above their betters. I know you'll understand one day."
"Now, now, dear…" Billetus tried again.
Her momentum building, the enrica d'ama went on. "That is quite enough from you, I would say! You, who let her-" That accusing finger now stabbed at Europe, unconscious on the bed. "-stay here!" Her arms now gestured wildly at the whole room. She began to go pale. Her cheeks wobbled apoplectically. "Did you think I wouldn't find out? She simply has to go!"
Mister Billetus now fumbled and stumbled but offered very little else.
"Oh my bursting knees! Keep her in the billet-boxes if your tender heart won't allow eviction!" the enrica d'ama hissed. "Either way, get her out of this room!"
In the awful, echoing silence that followed came a soft, icy voice. "My money glitters as well as another's, madam, and here in this bed I will stay!"
Everyone looked in wonder to the bed where Europe had lain apparently senseless just moments before. She was still tucked in, her head still half-buried in the midst of the many, too-soft pillows, but her eyes were open now, bloodshot and baleful-and regarding Madam Felicitine with cold disdain.
Unexpected relief burst within Rossamund.
At last Europe had woken.
WHAT THE PHYSICIAN ORDERED
Madam Felicitine did not appear to know how to answer such cool and obstinate certainty as she found in Europe. Suddenly rendered powerless in her own wayhouse, she quit the room with a great shower of tears and a great show of wailing.
Mumbling incoherent apologies, Billetus hurried after her, closing the dark door as he left.
Gretel and the skold looked at each other awkwardly, and then the bower maid busied herself by moving about the room lighting candles against the growing dark.
Doctor Verhooverhoven stood and stared at the floor impassively.
The skold looked from him to the bed and back, then behind her at the door. "I–I… I am s-s-sorry if I have d-done s-s-something to offend, Duh-Doctor Hoo-over-hoven," she offered, appearing truly troubled.
This roused the good physician. "Not at all, not at all, girl.You were only answering to my call-and fair enough at that. Let us think no more on what has just passed-this lady needs your aid."
A look of great relief lit up her face. "A-Absolutely, yes, let's.You know I'll always he-elp as b-best I c… can."
"And a great commendation it is to you too, my dear." The physician smiled grimly.
Rossamund was at Europe's bedside in a dash, full of hopeful concern.
She looked at him placidly, her red eyes ghastly within the oval of her sickly face. "Hello, little man… Have I been away for long?"
"Since last night… um, very early this morning." Rossamund's voice quavered slightly in his eagerness.
The fulgar closed her eyes. "So we made it to the wayhouse, then?… Am I all delirium or are my senses turning hard rocks and sharp pinecones into a soft, warm bed?"
"Aye, aye, we made it here, ma'am, and the kind people helped us."
Europe chuckled weakly. "I'm sure they did-except maybe that screeching woman. Tell me now, how much has this help cost?"
The boy's face fell. He had not thought of it quite like that: that they were ready with assistance only as he was ready to pay. "Ah, twelve sequins for two nights."
Her chuckle grew louder, but that stopped with a soft gasp. "And you paid from my purse?"
"No, ma'am." Rossamund puffed his chest just a little. "I paid with the Emperor's Billion, which was given me to start work as a lamplighter."
"An Emperor's Man, are we? Good for you. How interesting…" She seemed to fade for a moment, then shuddered. "I am sick, Rossamund. I must have my treacle and very soon.You'll have to make it for me again…"
While they had talked so, Doctor Verhooverhoven stood by, rocking on his heels once more. Now he came in quickly. "And you shall have it, madam. Here I am, the local physician, Doctor Verhooverhoven-how do you do? — and here is the delightful Miss Sallow, our own skold, who can make you your plaudamentum. Am I right, dear?" The physician turned his attention to the skold, who stepped forward, obviously in awe of the fulgar now invalid in the bed before her.
"W-why yes. I n-know all the k… kinds of drafts n… needed by l-lahzars. A g-good ssskold all-lways does."
The fulgar turned her mizzled attention to them both and squinted. "Ah, mister physician, you've got me a skold-how kind. Such… tender mercies, I thank you. However, the boy could have made it for me, sir. He's much cleverer than he looks."
Ducking his head, Rossamund did not know whether to be pleased or offended.
"I am sure he is and more, dear lady, but I would prefer to trust to my own methods and know it's done as well as I know it can be done." Doctor Verhooverhoven nodded his head in agreement with his own statement.
"However you want it. I'll not argue with a man of physics."
"As it should be, madam." He smiled ingratiatingly. "I shall recommend a soporific be brought to you as well, to help you sleep. Take both this and the plaudamentum and then heal with that most ancient of cures-rest."
Europe closed her eyes, a knowing grin upon her lips. "And tell me, dear doctor. At what price does your warm concern come?"
Rossamund could not be certain, but it seemed that Doctor Verhooverhoven actually blushed. "You do me a disservice, madam. I seek to help you purely for the satisfaction of knowing another human creature is strolling easy once more upon the path of health."
"Certainly you do, sir," Europe softly sighed, "and what will be the account waiting for me upon my departure? We all have to put food in stomachs and clothes on our backs-I'll not begrudge you your pay."
"Two sequins pays for it all," the physician relented.
Europe raised an eyebrow.
Rossamund thought her still very sharp and feisty for one so very ill.
Doctor Verhooverhoven quickly went on. "But enough of this unflattering talk of fiscal things-you must be easy now, and have your draft when it's done."
Rossamund found that disturbing black lacquer case-the treacle-box-poking from a saddlebag at the bottom of the cupboard. Once again it gave him dread chills as he fetched it out. He took it over to Europe, who roused herself and smiled weakly.
She looked to Sallow, who blushed brightly from ear to ear. "Let this little man help you, skold. I trust him."
The fulgar gave Rossamund a strange and haunted look. "He's my new… factotum…" she finished almost in a whisper.
The foundling was stunned-her new factotum? Where did that leave him with the lamplighters?
Doctor Verhooverhoven gave a slight bow. "As it shall be, ma'am. Take your ease.Your drafts shall be ready presently." He raised his arms in a broad gesture to the skold and the foundling. "Come! Sallow. Young sir. Off to the kitchens now and do your duty. Gretel will show you the way. Tell Closet that I have sent you."
With a small bright-limn in her hand, the bower maid opened the door and curtsied to them, giving a grin. "I'll take you to the kitchens, just as the physic ordered." She stepped lightly into the hall and the skold went with her.
Rossamund gave Europe a last look and followed, a welcome calm settling inside-things were going to turn out well. Still, his thinking turned upon two questions as he followed the bower maid and the skold down the dim hall: How am I going to be able to be Europe's factotum and lamplighter too? and Where are my shoes?
Gretel took them through a door, down another passage and through another door. Stepping alongside Sallow, Rossamund became aware that she was surrounded with some very unpleasant smells and sensations. In combination with the treacle-box, these made him feel distinctly queasy.
"Hello," the skold said softly with a shy smile. "M-my name is Sssallow Meh-Meermoon. What's yours?"
"Rossamund," he replied. She must be kind of important, to have two names. As always, he was half waiting for a strange reaction to his own.
"My, R-Rossamund, it mmmust be am-mazing to be the f-factotum of the B-Branden Rose!"
She had not reacted. He liked her. Pity she smells so badly. "It must be amazing to be a skold," he returned.
"Ooh, I w-wish it were." Sallow sounded deeply troubled.
Rossamund looked up at her sad face.
"I only j-just got back from th-the r-r-rhombus in Worms a m-month aa-go," she went on rapidly. "Three years I was th-there, learning the E-Elements and the Su-Sub-Elements, the Parts, potential nostrum, all the ss-scripts, all the buh-Bases and the Combinations, the kuh-Kornchenflecter, the F-Four S-Spheres and the fuh-Four Humours, Applications of the V–Vade kuh-Chemica, mmmatter and ha-abilistics. Oh m-my, what a l-lot to n-know."
Rossamund knew from his almanac that a "rhombus" was where some skolds went to learn their craft. As to the other things she'd said, he had no idea what she was talking about-except that "matter" was the study of things now past, that "habilistics" was the study of how things work and that the Vade Chemica was an ancient book-as Craumpalin had told him-full of the most unspeakable things. This girl seemed too polite and kind to have spent three years delving into such a grim volume.
"I have l-learned it all too," she carried on. "Eh-everything. Achieved hi-igh st-standards, won p-prizes. Oh, but nuh-now…"
She trailed off as they went through one last door and came into a very large room full of heat and steam and shouts. Shadows moved within this muggy air, lit glaringly from behind by a large pall of flickering orange. Delicious smells, sweet and savory, hung thickly.
Mmm, the kitchen… Rossamund's stomach celebrated this discovery with a gurgle.
"Bucket, you little sprig!" a refined but gravelly voice boomed. "Keep that spit turning and turning slowly, or I'll put you on it and baste you instead!"
There was a clang, then a crash, then a tinkle.
"That's it! Out! Out!" the voice boomed more loudly.
A small child scurried out of the thick vapors, pushed past them roughly and through the door. A ladle came flying after him, just missing Gretel and bouncing to the cobbled ground with a bang and a clatter that stung the ears. A very average-looking man with a red face appeared from the steam, his expression changing from a fit of fury to shamed apology and finally fixing on stiff reserve as he saw the three newcomers and at their feet the still shuddering ladle. "Gretel. Whom have you brought me? Do they not like their food? Do they want Uda to make it instead, do they?"
He was neither short nor tall, fat nor thin, handsome nor ugly, just very average. He wore an apron of the cleanest white despite all the bubblings and boilings going on around them. It was his voice that had bellowed before.
"Not at all, Mister Closet," Gretel answered merrily. "You recognize young Sallow, our skold, don't you? Little Sallow? Went off to Worms, has come back a proper young lady and a bogle-fighter too? She needs to brew a potive here or some such, under Doctor Verhooverhoven's orders."
Mister Closet made no sign of recognition. Instead, he looked ceilingward impatiently. "Well… if the good doctor has ordered it, I suppose it must be allowed." He frowned at Sallow and pointed to his left, his hand clutching a jagged knife. "Use the hot plate in yon corner there and stay out of the way!"
Gretel went to leave and saw that Rossamund was padding about the place in just his trews. "I am so sorry-you haven't had your shoes returned. Sitt, the rascal, has taken his time. I will fetch them for you," she said and left them with a smile.
A silent, portly lady in an apron as filthy as Closet's was white gave the skold a small clay pot to mix in.
Rossamund fidgeted. The uncomfortable sensations coming from the treacle-box were beginning to become unbearable. It was a great relief when Sallow took it from him. As he gave it to her, he asked, "Um-Miss Skold-ah-Sallow. Doesn't it make you feel… nervous, to hold all these reagents?"
"N-no, not r-really," she answered absently. "This is a w-well laid out b-box. Very ha-andy. Do you n-know where sh-she got it from?"
With great concentration Sallow busied herself in the preparation of the treacle. The skold went through all the steps just as Rossamund had done, muttering to herself all the time. "F-first the… bezoariac, then… the… r-rhatany… then…"
When it was finished (and Rossamund thought it a little too lumpy), Sallow poured the treacle into a beer tankard and carried it back to the room.
Europe drank as greedily as she always did. Almost before their very eyes her face flushed with renewed vigor.
As she finished the last of the treacle, Doctor Verhooverhoven turned to Sallow. "I have good tidings for you, my dear." The physician smiled at the skold. "You see, this fair fulgar has told me-while you were brewing-that she has slain those troublesome bogles in the Brindleshaws!"
Sallow looked as if she had just been freed from a terrible gaol sentence. "Really! Oh ruh-really!" She turned from the beaming doctor to the impassive fulgar.
Europe smiled in a cool, regal way, and nodded. "I hear from the physic that you were doomed to fight them yourself, girl. I am glad to rid you of the burden. The big fellow was a doddle, but those I believe to be his little masters gave me the… hardest time. A mercantile league in High Vesting hired me to do it, so you can thank the Signal Stars the unhappy task is done. Back to brewing and books for you."
"Oh my! Oh m-my! What a r-ruh-relief," was all that the overjoyed Sallow could manage for the moment.
The offhand mention of the death of the Misbegotten Schrewd gave Rossamund a sharp jab in his gut. The sorrow of it returned to him.
Europe lay back, closing her eyes. "I won't need your soporific, Doctor Verhooverhoven. I feel sleep coming to me anyway."
"Good to hear-just as it should be."
Taking up a candle, the physician shepherded Sallow toward the door with upraised arms. "Time for we less sleepy folk to leave. I must return to my own abode-things there also need attending to. Sallow, after you." He smiled at Rossamund. "When you are done here, my boy, I recommend you to the common room, and get yourself a hearty meal."
The foundling nodded. "Aye, doctor, I shall."
"Good night, madam!" The physician bowed gracefully to Europe. "I expect you to be in much better spirits tomorrow."
"And good night to you too, good doctor," returned Europe with equal grace. "Sleep well."
The physician and the skold left.
Feeling a little awkward at being alone with the fulgar, Rossamund fidgeted and looked at her shyly. She still held the tankard in which her treacle had been served.
"I could take that back to the kitchens for you, Miss Europe," he offered.
She looked at him sleepily. "That's a servant's job, little man." She held it up to him anyway. "But if you must."
As he took it from her, he saw that there was a whole battery of marks running down the inside of each wrist, a tiny X flaring at each end. They were the same deep, dried-blood color as the leering monster's head drawn on Master Fransitart's arm. He hesitated. "Miss Europe…?"
"What are they?" he asked, looking meaningfully at her wrists.
The fulgar turned them about to show the small marks more clearly-arranged four by four in distinct sets. On the right wrist three complete sets went halfway up her arm; on the left there was only one complete set and another well on the way.
Rossamund did a quick calculation. There must be more than seventy!
"These?" she queried mildly. "These are just my cruorpunxis."
"Your what, miss?"
"Cruorpunxis," she repeated, growing slightly impatient. "Kroo-or-punk-siss. Monster-blood tattoos. Each little mark a monster I've slain."
She's killed more than seventy monsters!
"Not every one is here, though," she sighed, looking intently at her forearm. "Sometimes it is impossible to get at the beast after it's done in. Like that big brute at the bridge…"
He was glad she would not be able to mark the Misbegotten Schrewd there. "I thought they were always drawn in the shape of those you killed?"
"Oh, well, that's the way of rude and vulgar fellows. I have preferred something a little more comely and suitable."
Rossamund frowned. He did not like Master Fransitart being called a rude, vulgar fellow.
Europe roused herself. "Listen now," she said, heedless of his inner fuming. "While you were in the kitchens, I made an arrangement for the retrieval of… dear Licurius… and… the landaulet too. I expect it to be done by tomorrow evening-please, come and tell me as soon as it is."
Yes, your blasted, wicked Licurius, went Rossamund's thoughts.
"Aye, Miss Europe," went his mouth.
Rossamund did not look at Europe as he walked to the door. All the bad he had witnessed her do was a heavy, black pall in his thoughts. Just inside the door he spied his shoes, thoroughly clean and shining black. Over them Europe's high, violent-looking equiteer boots loomed. Rossamund took his shoes out from under their shadow and put them on. Without a word or a backward look, he left the room.
A TROUBLE SHARED IS A TROUBLE HALVED
Early the next morning, Rossamund found Europe sitting quietly on a stiff chair by a newly lit fire, staring at the struggling flames. She held a soup bowl of Cathar's Treacle, meekly sipping at it rather than gulping it down. Waiting till she had finished her potive-feeling that this would be the best policy-he began.
Europe turned her hazel gaze to him. "Yes, little man?"
He fidgeted. "What… what do you think of my name?"
The fulgar looked annoyed. "How do you mean, think?"
"Well, it's not a name meant for a boy. Did you know that?"
Her expression relaxed. She laughed her liquid chortle. "Oh, I seeee! So, some would have it meant for a girl? What concern is it of mine how your sires chose to label you? Things are more than their names. If you were anointed 'Dunghead,' I'd still call you that without teasing or embarrassment. It's just a word, little man." She gave him a soft look-faint, but unusually kind.
Rossamund's heart sang a little. The fulgar might have gone some small way to redeeming herself for the harm done at the Brindlestow Bridge.
For a time she did not speak, and Rossamund went to leave. Europe reached over and touched him on the arm. She said, very quietly, "I understand why you asked me this, though, and I'm sure it has been a great inconvenience to you for much of your life."
He blinked at her capricious kindness. After a moment he answered, "Aye, ma'am, it has at that. They would call me 'Rosy Posy' or 'Girly-man' or 'M'lady' or… or more things besides."
The fulgar contemplated him with a serious eye. "Hardly surprising. Children begin the cruel career of the untamed tongue almost as soon as they can talk." She paused, and continued to look at him intently. He took the bowl from her to give himself something to do under that uncomfortable gaze.
"I hope you learn to master your hurts, little man."
Rossamund kept his eyes on the black dregs in the bottom of the bowl. "Oh, I just ignored them, stayed out of the way as much as possible. Master Fransitart and Verline looked after me very well, anyways, so I don't mind."
Europe shifted in her seat. "So, who are these-Master Fransitart and… Verline?" she asked, pulling out a small, black lacquered box.
Rossamund relaxed. "Oh, Master Fransitart is… was my dormitory master, though not the only one: there's Craumpalin and Heddlebulk, Instructor Barthom?us and Undermaster Cuspin…"
Europe's eyes glazed and she went back to looking at the fire. It appeared that she had lost interest.
"… and Verline is Madam Opera's parlor maid, but she took special care of me," Rossamund said, finishing quickly, wanting at least to answer her original question.
"Madam Opera, now?" Europe's attention fixed on him again and she lifted one brow in her characteristic manner. "Enough names.Your first years sound almost as complicated as mine were. Go away now, little man. A woman must have her privacy. Let me know as soon as… Licurius' body… and the landaulet are fetched back." Her shoulders sagged and, even though she had just risen, she looked very tired.
Rossamund nodded a little bow and, holding the soup bowl in one hand and picking up his almanac in the other, went to leave. As he opened the door, Europe called, "And tell them not to disturb me."
"Yes, Miss Europe."
As confused as he had ever been after a conversation with the fulgar, Rossamund went to the common room. Strangely, he also felt lighter than he had for many days. He read his almanac and sipped on a mug of small beer. In the afternoon Gretel came to him while he still sat in the common room. Dank, the day-watch yardsman, was with her and announced to the foundling that the landaulet had been retrieved.
Rossamund went out to the yard and found the carriage to be as much in the state they had left it, as could be expected. He asked after the corpse of the leer.
"Well, ye see," said Dank, scratching his head, "there was no body, not the horse's nor this Licurius fellow's."
Rossamund's heart sank. The growing lightness within him evaporated, without even a memory of it ever occurring at all. His face must have shown his sinking spirits, for Gretel put her hand softly on his shoulder.
"'Tis the way of things," the day-watch yardsman explained. "Monsters love their meat, and the skin and bones of people most of all. Sorry, lad. I'm sure your mistress will understand. She seems a worldly woman, if her reputation has it right."
With a heavy sigh, Rossamund made his way to his room, Gretel and Dank-hat humbly in hand-accompanying him. When they were permitted to enter, Europe seemed in good spirits. With much "um"-ing and "ah"-ing, Rossamund gave her the grim news.
Dank confirmed his report almost as awkwardly. "We searched as long and as far as we dared, ma'am, but turned up nought…"
Black gloom immediately descended upon the fulgar, and she ordered everyone from the room with a chilling whisper. As Rossamund left, she called to him. Her eyes were hard and her expression brittle. "We will need a new driver," she said.
Rossamund hesitated, the question of how forming in his mind and making its way to his mouth.
The fulgar's eyes narrowed.
"Y-yes, Miss Europe," the foundling said, and left quickly.
He sought out Mister Billetus about such a task, and the proprietor told him that the town of Silvernook, a little way to the north, was the best place to find coachmen, wagoners and other drivers.
"Just go to the coachman's cottage of the Imperial Postal Office," offered Mister Billetus. "'Tis where all the drivers spend their time waiting their turn to drive the mail from town to town."
As it was deemed too late in the day for him to proceed, Rossamund was forced to wait till the next day to seek a driver in Silvernook. Instead he went to the common room to have dinner. Just as the night before, a maid served him and he chose a meal from a list upon a large oblong of card she held.
At the top it read "Bill of Fare"… and beneath the dishes were categorized under subheadings: "Best Cuts" and "The Rakes." The difference Rossamund could not fathom. Last night he had chosen lamprey pie from the list headed "The Rakes" because he had had it once before and did not recognize the names of any of the other meals. It did not taste very good. Tonight he picked the venison ragout, and also asked for an exotic-sounding drink listed as "Juice-of-Orange." When this beverage arrived, it had a flavor that, yet again, amazed the simple tastes of the foundling. Sharp, sweet, tangy, refreshing, the juice was like the best orange he had ever eaten. The venison ragout, on the other hand, he found a bizarre flavor in his mouth, making it tingle and smart, but he pushed it down all the same. Not even the fussiest book child ever left food on a plate.
A woman dressed in an astounding display of peacock feathers and blued fur stood at the other end of the common room and sang so sweetly Rossamund forgot to eat for minutes at a time. Apparently her name was Hero of Clunes-so he heard people about him say-a famous actress from faraway south. Rossamund wondered what she might be doing in this remote region. Looking for "Clunes" in his almanac, Rossamund found to his amazement that it was so far south it did not even show on any of his charts.
He finished his meal and returned to his room to slumber. Europe still lay in bed, her back to the door. Rossamund could not tell whether she slept or simply ignored him, and cared little for the risk to find out which. Not long after dawn he set out. Master Billetus sent Little Dog with him to show the way. Little Dog went forth barefoot, protected by proofing of much lesser quality than Rossamund's own fine jackcoat. He proved shy at first and seemed in awe of the foundling, an attitude so new to Rossamund that he found it unnerving.
They were let through the gates, which were firmly shut again behind them, and quickly arrived at the intersection by which the Harefoot Dig was built. A sign was there telling them that they had arrived at the Gainway. To the south, it said, was High Vesting. To the north was Silvernook, and below this Winstermill. The back of Rossamund's head tingled as he realized how close he was to his final destination. He had just to keep going north past Silvernook and he would arrive there. If it was not for Mister Germanicus waiting for him in High Vesting, he just might have. They turned left and went north up the Gainway toward Silvernook.
Little Dog walked quickly and Rossamund strained to keep pace. It was hard work and left little breath for conversation. The page boy kept looking about nervously, and Rossamund joined him. Overloud rustles made them jump and hurry on. Once a loud crack away among the trunks alarmed them so much they fled the road and hid behind a knuckle of lichen-covered rocks. It was always a relief whenever a cart or a carriage passed them by, the drivers typically offering a wave and sometimes a friendly, incoherent greeting. This traffic became more and more frequent as the day progressed.
By about the first bell of the forenoon watch-as Rossamund reckoned it-a cart rattled by and stopped. Its rubicund driver hoied! them cheerily, calling, "Little Dog! Ye're wanting a hitch to Silvernook?" to which the two tired walkers gave a hearty yes.
The driver introduced himself to Rossamund as Farmer Rabbitt and chatted merrily about "taters" and "gorms" and how Goodwife Rabbitt was heavy with child. "Moi first, yer know," he grinned with a wink. Rossamund thought him the happiest fellow he had ever met, and could not help but grin along with the farmer's ready joy.
The darkling forest gave way to great, high hedges of cedar trees, grown close and thick along the verges. In the midst of almost every hedge-wall there was some kind of grand and solid-looking gate. Little Dog informed him that these were the fences behind which lived the local gentry.
As they rattled on, Rossamund thought on the perplexing choice before him: stay true to the original path-become a lamplighter and take on a boring life, or become the factotum-the servant-of a woman who did deeds with which he could never agree? It was more than he knew how to solve, and he hoped circumstances would provide a solution for him.
Soon enough they arrived at Silvernook, hidden within a high bluestone wall. The gates of the town were open, but they were watched. The town's gaters, who wore the black uniform of Brandenbrass, eyed them sternly as Farmer Rabbitt drove through. He set Little Dog and Rossamund down by the Imperial Postal Office, where the lads parted ways, for Little Dog had an errand to run somewhere else in the town.
"I'm sorry, Mister Rossamund, sir," he said, "but I probably won't be able to show you back to the Dig.You'll find yer way back a'right, though, won't you?"
"I reckon so, Little Dog," answered Rossamund, blushing at the boy's deference. "I'll have my driver by then-he'll be going back with me, I'm sure."
With a satisfied nod, Little Dog left.
The Imperial Postal Office of Silvernook was narrow and high, like every other building in the town, making the most of the limited room offered within the safety of the town's walls. And as always, its chimneys were extraordinarily tall. As far as he knew, chimneys were so lofty because it was reckoned that the higher they were, the harder it would be for some curious bogle to climb them and do mischief.
People were going into and coming out of the Imperial Postal Office steadily. Rossamund found that he had to join a queue of high-class ladies in their voluminous skirts and festooned bonnets; guildsmen in their weathered leather aprons; and middle-class gentlemen buckled inside high collars and flaring frock coats, just so he might ask for further help. When he finally arrived at the serious woman on the other side of a perforated wall, she informed him that the coachman's cottage was beyond a certain side door, through which he proceeded directly.
The door opened onto a long drive that went between the Imperial Postal Office and another equally tall building. This drive took him to a sizable open area at the back, large enough to turn a two-horse carriage about, surrounded on every side by high houses. In a far corner was a small dwelling with a bright red door: the coachman's cottage. A brass plaque screwed to it declared:
… and Rossamund did just that.
There was a long pause.
He tried again, and the portal was finally opened, a thin, grudging gap.
"Hello," Rossamund began, hands clasped meekly. "Do you have any drivers in there?"
The gap increased slightly.
"You what?" came a sour voice from within.
Rossamund cleared his throat nervously. "I… uh, we are needing to hire someone to drive the landaulet down to High Vesting. Um, we're at the Harefoot Dig, you see, and…"
"You want someone to go with you down to the Dig," the sour voice demanded, "so they can drive some cart to High Vesting, aye?"
"And how much you got in your purse?"
"I… um…" Flustered, Rossamund counted his coins. "One sequin, a florin and eight guise."
"I seeeee." The sour voice sounded less than convinced. "Wait there."
The door closed with a bang.
Fidgeting, Rossamund was made to wait what felt like an overlong time.
Finally the scarlet door was pulled open a crack once more. "Sorry, no drivers available," the sour voice declared, sounding almost triumphant. "Too busy! Try the Drained Mouse on Fossick's Cauld-plenty of desperate lads there. Good-bye."
"But wait, I don't…"
The door closed with an even louder, all-questions-ending bang.
Even before Rossamund had a chance to turn and walk away in disgust, the door was opened once again, wide this time. "So yer need some help with a driver, do yer?" a voice inquired.
Before him stood a cheerful-looking man with a ready, toothy smile and large ears that stuck out prominently, made more obvious by his hair, which was unfashionably short like Rossamund's. This fellow was dressed in drab, sturdy proofing: a jackcoat strapped all the way down the front; longshanks of a thick, corded material; and white gaiters reaching as high as the knee fastened over sturdy dark brown road-shoes. Wound tightly about his waist was a broad sash, and fixed by black ribbons to both arms were broad oversleeves of a brightly colored taffeta of rouge and cadmium checkers.
Rossamund instantly recognized the mottle of a postman, those faithful fellows who braved bandits and bogles and foul weather to deliver mail to and from the scattered folk of the country. The colorful cloth was set off nicely against his otherwise dull attire, and made the man look important and serious, quite at odds with his friendly expression. In his hand he held a black tricorn.
Rossamund frowned at him, not knowing how to answer.
"Hello, lad, sorry about being so abrupt. Just had ter make sure I got t' yer in time. My name is Fouracres." The man reached out a hand for Rossamund to shake.
The boy did just that, as Fransitart had taught him to, looking up at the man's face seriously. "Hello, Mister Fouracres. I'm Rossamund.You're a postman, aren't you?"
The fellow nodded smartly. "Yes, lad, that I am-bit obvious, ain't it? Rossamund, yer say? Well, Mister Rossamund, those other slothful souses in there might not want to help, but I may be of service to yer."
"How so, sir?"
"Well, I'm needed in High Vesting, yer see, and I couldn't help hearing yer needed a driver to take yer ter High Vesting, so I think: two people, same problem, one solution. I'd like ter offer me services to yer as the driver yer need. I'm not as well practiced as these daily-driving gentlemen-I'm a walker, yer see-but I still know how to switch a rein."
Rossamund did not care what the man's credentials were: he could drive, that was all he wanted to know. He accepted Fouracres' offer with glee.
The postman bowed humbly. "Just wait by the front of the office, and I will join yer as soon as I'm able," he offered with a grin.
With many an exuberant thank you, sir! Rossamund went back through the Imperial Postal Office and waited on the street out in front. It took a long time for the postman to emerge. As Rossamund waited, with people and vehicles bustling by, he began fretting that he had been duped by the unwilling people inside the coachman's cottage. His fears proved unfounded, however, for Fouracres arrived soon enough, hat on head, bag full of dispatches on his back and a satchel over his shoulder-ready to leave. Before much longer they were walking back out the gates of Silvernook and returning down the road to the Harefoot Dig.
Rossamund had found a driver!
Fouracres whistled a cheery tune as they strolled past the high hedge-walls of the gentry. He walked with an easy stride and smiled at anyone who passed. Rossamund trotted happily beside him along the weedy strip that ran between the lanes, right down the middle of the road.
"So, Mister Rossamund," the postman finally said, "how is it that yer could be at the Dig with a fancy carriage but no driver?"
Rossamund thought for a moment. "There was a driver, sir, but he was killed by the grinnlings."
Fouracres looked at him. "Grinnlings?"
"Aye, sir. Those nasty little baskets that attacked us-the ones with sharp teeth and the clothes and the great big ears…" Rossamund stopped short and, looking quickly at the postman's own organs of hearing, hoped he had not offended him.
Fouracres seemed not to have noticed any insult. "Aaah, them! Nasty little baskets indeed! Hereabouts they call them nimbleschrewds. They've been a'murdering wayfarers here and there in the Brindleshaws for the last three months or so. I'm sorry ter hear they got yer driver too."
"He fought hard, Mister Fouracres, killed many, but they got him in the end. I watched it happen-they just smothered him."
The postman nodded approvingly. "Well, there yer have it! To kill one or two is a doughty thing, but ter go slaying more, my word, that's a mighty feat indeed! But tell me: what was it that coaxed yer and yer driver to linger in that part of the woods-it being common knowledge they be haunted?"
The foundling did not know how to answer. He screwed up his face, scratched his head, puffed and sighed. In the end he just told the truth. Starting with Madam Opera's, he told the entirety of his little adventure to the postman, who listened without interrupting once.
"So the ettin's dead, then?" was all he said when Rossamund had finished.
"Aye, it was killed, sir, or as near enough to it, from what I saw," Rossamund replied glumly. "I was there to watch, but I had nothing to do with it, really. It was a cruel thing, and I didn't know what to do…"
Fouracres seemed sad to hear this himself. He sighed a heavy sigh. "Ahh, poor, foolish ettin," the postman said, distractedly-almost to himself. "He did not want to listen to me… I warned him this would happen… There yer have it, lad: cruel things like this are done all the year long."
"Did you speak to the schrewd, Mister Fouracres?" Rossamund was stunned.
"Hey? Oh, that I did, and often," the postman answered, after a pause. "He is-was-on my round, yer see, between Herrod's Hollow and the Eustusis' manor house. I told him no good would come of his enterprise, but he was powerfully put upon by those nasty little nickers ter keep it up. Who did the dastardly deed?"
"It was, um, Miss Europe, sir, and her factotum Licurius-but he died at the task, sir. He was the driver."
"Aah, the Branden Rose… I had heard she might have been hired for the job, with that wicked leer as driver, you say… a fitting end for him, perhaps?" The postman gave Rossamund a keen look. "I've not had anything ter do with either, but I know the lahzar by her work and the leer by his blackened reputation. Is the Branden Rose as pretty as they say?"
Rossamund shrugged but offered no more. "What were the grinnlings doing to the schrewd?" he persisted.
"Huh?" The postman looked momentarily distracted. "Oh. Well… if yer go by what the big schrewd said, it was the nimbleschrewds'-grinnlings, you called them? — idea to haunt the Brindlestow and stand-and-deliver travelers. I think they thought his great size would scare people more. It was inevitable really: such a scheme could never last so deep within our domain." Fouracres sucked in a breath. "I've seen the Misbegotten Schrewd about long before now. He ought'er have known better, but those grinnlings-I like that name, very fitting-those grinnlings must have come in from the Ichormeer or some other wildland up north. I say that 'cause, if it was their idea, then they can have only been ignorant of the ways of men or just plain stupid."
Rossamund listened with rapt fascination. Here was a man who had not only seen monsters, he had talked with them! Why couldn't they have made me a postman so I could wander around and talk to monsters too? To Fouracres he said, "I can't believe you actually spoke with the Misbegotten Schrewd!"
"Well I did, many times. Great talks they were, very illuminating." Fouracres became sad again. "It's a great shame he had ter go the way he did-that ettin was a nice enough fellow."
Angry tears formed in Rossamund's eyes. He kicked at a stone and sent it cracking into the trees. "I knew it! I knew it! But she just went and killed him anyway!"
"Now there, Rossamund, master yerself," the postman soothed, bemused. "It's a bitter truth of our world that monsters and the vast majority of folks can't live together-certainly not happily. In everyman lands, monsters give way; in monster lands, everymen give way. It's a law o' nature."
"But you lived happily with them!"
"Some I did, that is sure, but certainly not all I met were worth stopping ter chat with. Besides which"-Fouracres leaned closer-"I ain't the vast majority of folks."
Rossamund wiped his nose. He was angry still. Things would never be as simple as they were at the foundlingery. "I would have liked to have been his friend too!" he growled.
The postman leaned forward and replied quietly, almost secretively, "A noble feeling, Rossamund. It does credit t'yer soul, and I heartily believe yer would have made an excellent chum: but I have ter warn yer not ter say as much ter many others. Such talk can get you a whole life o' trouble. Keep these things ter yerself." Fouracres thought for a moment. "I'll not trouble yer, though, nor say anything of what yer've just told me. 'Tween us alone, this…" But suddenly he stopped-stopped talking, stopped walking and stared rigidly at nothing.
Rossamund had walked some way ahead before he realized. Alarmed, he turned back to the postman. "Mister Fo… "
"Uh!" was all Fouracres said, his hand whipping up to signal silence. After only a moment more he stepped forward and whispered to the startled foundling. "We have something wicked on our path. Follow and step very lightly-yer life depends on't…" With that the postman crept into the trees on their left.
Looking over either shoulder in awe, Rossamund followed as quietly as he could into the wood, every snap and click underfoot a cause for chagrined wincing. He could not see anything on the road. How was it possible for this fellow to do so?
The ground all about was very flat and the trees broadly spaced. Some way in Fouracres found a modest pile of stone all about a small boulder and indicated that this was to be their hiding place.
His gizzards buzzing with fear, Rossamund gratefully hid behind these rocks and found a gap between them through which he stared back at the road.
Fouracres put down the large bag he carried and held up a finger, whispering seriously. "No noise, no movement-ye're the very soul of stillness. Aye? The soul of stillness."
"Aye," Rossamund replied in a nervous wheeze.
"I will be back."
The postman returned to the road, rapidly yet with little sound. Watching through the gap in the stones, Rossamund saw him pick up a long stick as he went, then take out something from the satchel he carried and unwrap it. The strangely pleasant odor of john-tallow came back to him in the light early afternoon breeze. Quickly, Fouracres skewered the john-tallow on the end of the stick and began to rub it on the ground, on trunks, on leaves, creeping off the road and into the trees on the opposite side.
He's making a false trail! Rossamund realized.
With fluid, careful speed, the postman worked deeper into the woods. Rossamund lost sight of him and began to feel all-too-familiar panic.
I am the very soul of stillness! I am the very soul of stillness… he chanted to himself.
There was a click close by.
With that one sound he became the very soul of dread!
There, just showing above one of the larger rocks, appeared the glaring head of a monster. Not more than five or six paces away, its long face was covered in mangy gray fur, with a pointed nose and equally pointed teeth, the top ones protruding over the bottom lip. A matted beard grew in limp strands from its chin. It had great, rabbitlike ears tipped with black fur that drooped out from behind its eyes. Large yellow eyes rolled about between slitted lids. This creature snuffled at the air as its ears twitched and swiveled.
Rossamund had never imagined such a thing-how very happy he would have been to have Europe with him now! He clenched every muscle he knew he had, holding his wind for fear that even breathing would make him move too much. I'm not here, don't see me… I'm not here, don't see me…
However, the creature's attention was clearly absorbed by the perfume of the john-tallow. It stalked away without noticing the foundling cowering in his temporary rock shelter. Remaining frozen, Rossamund was nevertheless able to watch it through the gap as it stepped onto the road. Hunched and gaunt and taller than a man, the nicker bent down to smell the spot where Fouracres and the boy had only just been standing. Its long, furry arms ended in long, furry hands from which grew long, curved claws that clicked and clacked together with every move of its fingers. Its legs bent backward like the hind legs of a dog, and it used them to walk in an awkward, jerking way. The creature looked up the road, it looked down the road, sniffed at the ground again. Finally it started into the opposite trees.
But where was Fouracres? Daring to move a little, Rossamund peered through his small gap in the rocks, looking for the postman out there somewhere in the trees.
Wanting to flee, wailing, into the woods, Rossamund determined instead to be patient. He had survived the grinnlings-the nimbleschrewds; he could survive this.
With a soft snort, the creature pranced farther into the shadows on the other side of the road. It lingered there in the twilight under the eaves. While Rossamund watched it, he began to get this strange niggling sensation to look to his left. He was reluctant to take his eyes from the creature, but in the end he did and looked over his shoulder. There was Fouracres sneaking back to him one slow cautious step at a time, his eyes never leaving the shadows of the opposite wood.
Relief! Sweet relief. Rossamund could not recall ever feeling so glad, so lightened within, to see someone as he did just then. Encouraged, he returned to his vigil, in time to see the creature thread its jaunting way through the trunks and eventually disappear from sight.
Turning back to watch the postman, he found Fouracres, his eyes still fixed on the farther trees, almost up to the rocks. He no longer had the john-tallow: that would be stuck somewhere cunning as far from them as possible on the opposite side. Rossamund went to move, but the postman cautioned him to remain as still as he had been.
"We're not free of it yet," he hissed almost inaudibly as he crouched down beside the foundling.
Taking the postman's lead, Rossamund stayed still and kept his watch through the gap. Muscles began to ache and an annoying hum started in his ears as he strained to hear any clue of the creature's return. This waiting was getting very hard.
Seconds slowed to minutes, minutes slowed to hours.
Rossamund gave Fouracres a pleading look.
"Keep waiting," Fouracres insisted once more, and Rossamund sat till he thought he could not take the buzzing of his joints or the ringing in his ears anymore. He had no idea for how long they waited, just that it was so very long.
Even when a carriage went by, they waited still. But when another clattered by only a few minutes later, the postman seemed satisfied, and at last released them, saying, "It's safe enough. Let's get away from here."
Leading Rossamund through the trees, still in silence, Fouracres allowed them to travel on the open road again only after they had put an hour's distance between themselves and their temporary refuge. Once clear of the trees, they hurried the rest of the way and arrived at the Harefoot Dig, safe at last.
It was late afternoon.
Exhausted, but promising to meet the postman in the common room, Rossamund went to tell Europe the good news.
The reclining, recovering fulgar received the revelation with her usual laconic grace. "You can trust this fellow?"
"He's an Imperial postman, miss. His whole life is trustworthiness!" the foundling enthused.
"Well, if a girl can't trust her own factotum, then who can she?" Europe closed her eyes, signaling the end of the matter.
Rossamund rolled his eyes.
And what if a factotum can't trust his mistress?
He returned to the common room too eager to enjoy his last meal, for tomorrow they would be leaving. Fouracres was waiting for him, a pipkin of small wine and two mugs already on the table. As they sipped the small wine, Rossamund showed the postman the cracking, illegible mass that used to be his traveling papers, letter of introduction and the rest. Rossamund still carried them even though they were next to useless, thankful at least that Mister Sebastipole's instructions were so skeletal, for while they lacked detail, they had been easy to memorize. He thought that an Imperial postman, especially one as friendly and helpful as Fouracres, would be able to help him with this problem.
Fouracres uncreased the puzzle of ruined papers carefully. He inspected the all-but-dissolved writing gravely. Soon he looked up again. "This is certainly a mess," he concluded, "but the seal is still intact on yer traveling certificate, and yer name, thank Providence. As ter the rest, well, I'll vouch for yer-what I call good, the Empire calls good.Yer mottle will help yer too." He pointed to Rossamund's baldric.
"Thank you so much, Mister Fouracres. I thought I was sunk."
"My pleasure, Rossamund, though I would recommend yer got them rewritten by the clerk or the Chief Harbor Governor as soon as yer can-and I'll help yer in that as well."
A meal of black coney pie arrived-and a jug of Juice-of-Orange with it-and they ate in silence for a time. Eventually Rossamund mustered the courage to ask, "Mister Fouracres, what was that creature back on the road there?"
The postman stopped chewing and looked thoughtfully at the ceiling. "I don't rightly know," he answered at last. "Never seen its kind before. Bit of a conundrum-I'll have ter ask around."
Rossamund held up his almanac. "I can't find it in here either."
"Well, that ain't surprising," Fouracres chuckled. "There's more kinds of monster than many a book could catalog." He quickly became sad and serious. "Not that most folks think they're worth a-cataloging anyways. Most folks would rather just see them killed and that be the end of it or at most see a list of glaring faces tattooed ter the limbs of a teratologist. Still, worth a look."
Rossamund returned the book to his lap. "Uh… Mister Fouracres, have you… ever killed a monster?"
"Unfortunately, Mister Rossamund, I have been forced ter do so, yes." The postman looked sad. "Yer see, if it's a choice 'twixt they or me, I choose me each time."
"Does that mean you have monster-blood tattoos, then?" Rossamund could not help from asking.
Fouracres hesitated, then frowned. "Well, no, actually. I don't go a-glorying in killings my hand's been forced to do. It's just a part of getting the post ter where it needs ter be."
The meal finished, the Juice-of-Orange drunk, they parted ways, Fouracres promising to be ready to take the reins on the morrow morning. They set out early, just as the sun had shown itself above the rim of the world. With Sallow detained elsewhere, Rossamund was trusted to make Europe's treacle. He proudly handed the evenly mixed brew to the fulgar, and then left her to meet with Fouracres and help prepare the landaulet. Europe soon emerged wrapped in a thick deep magenta coat, knee-length, with its high collar and cuffs trimmed with thick, bleached fox fur. Her hair was held back in loose coils and she wore pink quartz-lensed spectacles. She appeared very differently from when Rossamund first met her. She also still looked unwell and was, consequently, in a foul mood.
The night before she had settled the account with the proprietors by simply refusing to pay any extra beyond what she owed Doctor Verhooverhoven, declaring with the cold loftiness of a queen, "The boy's billion has covered expenses, as you well know. You'll not get a gander more out of him nor out of me."
Madam Felicitine went pale, but had said not a word.
Mister Billetus had just ducked his head and said, "Right you are, right you are. Hope your stay was as comfortable as could have been in the circumstances."
With a footman lugging out the fulgar's saddlebags and other luggage behind her, Europe stepped out into the coach yard. Rossamund and Fouracres were already seated in the landaulet, waiting, the foundling in the passenger compartment and the postman ready to drive in the driver's box. Europe stopped by the step of the carriage and stayed there. With a quiet apology a yardsman went to hand her aboard. She shooed him away, saying, "Leave off, man, it's not your job."
Rossamund had let his attention wander, filling his senses with the beauty of early morning. Only gradually did he become aware things were amiss. He looked dumbly at Europe, puzzled. She remained still, glaring straight ahead through those clear weird pink spectacles, her chin stuck forward arrogantly.
Rossamund blinked. What's wrong?What is she waiting for?
"Miss Europe?" he asked simply.
Her eyes flicked to him. "Well…?"
There was an uncomfortable silence. Somehow it dawned on the foundling what she wanted. I'm supposed to help her in like Licurius did!
He quickly jumped out of the landaulet, causing it to rock and unsettle the horse.
"Whoa! Steady, lad," Fouracres warned.
Ever so subtly, Europe rolled her eyes.
With a weak smile Rossamund handed the fulgar aboard and climbed back in once more, feeling very foolish.
"Drive on, man," Europe murmured.
Without a backward glance, Fouracres whipped the horse to a start. They went out through broad gates and turned left. Looking back, Rossamund could see farther along the wall to that pedestrian portal they had been admitted through three nights earlier. In his mind he bid farewell to his first wayhouse.
Fouracres turned the landaulet right at the junction and Rossamund was taken south this time. The Harefoot Dig disappeared behind the trees.
The Gainway took them through a woodland of younger, graceful pines, with areas of wild lawn between the slender trees. As they went on, large lichen-covered boulders now appeared here and there and the lawn became sparse and stubbly. An hour out from the wayhouse, the road began to slope gently down, and soon the trees gave way to a broad expanse of rolling downs and even larger lichen-grown stones. Every so often, thin, rutted paths would lead off from it, going to mysterious, adventurous ends. He saw one come to its conclusion at some distant dwelling. There were several of these about, he began to notice, small stone cottages built high upon lofty foundations, also of stone, with slits for windows and tall chimneys. Smoke wafted from some, that mysterious sign of homely life within.
"They're the houses of the eekers," Fouracres explained, "folk who manage to scratch out a living in the thin soil hereabouts. What they lack in material wealth they gain in liberty. The authorities don't tend to bother them much."
"But why are they so high off the ground?"
Fouracres gave a wry smile. "Ahh, to give the bogles a hard time getting them, of course."
With a slight arching of her brows, Europe looked knowingly at the postman's back. "You've dealt with some yourself, I suppose?" she said. This was the first thing she had said all morning.
The postman did not look at her. "Indeed I have, ma'am, though I am sure a near sight fewer than thee!"
"Hm." Europe lapsed into silence once more.
After two hours, with the scene changing little, they passed a milestone, a squat block of white rock upon which was carved High Vesting, and beneath that, 6 miles.
Behind this milestone grew a small, scruffy olive tree. As Rossamund looked, he was sure he spied movement within, a subtle shifting within the bush. He glared into its deep shadows. There, within, he was certain there was a figure obscured by boughs, a little person with a face like an overlarge sparrow and round, glittering dark eyes. A bogle! It shrunk noiselessly into deeper shade, but its eyes remained fixed on Rossamund, blinking occasionally with a pale flicker. The foundling stared back in breathless wonder, craning his neck as the landaulet rattled past and moved on.
"It's only a milestone, little man," Europe's curt voice intruded. "Surely you've seen one before?"
The horse whickered.
The eyes disappeared.
Rossamund sat back quickly. Thrilled as he was by such a sight, he felt no inclination to tell Europe of it. He did not want to see this one destroyed as the Misbegotten Schrewd had been. Thinking on the encounter just past, he decided he must have seen a nuglung, one of the littler bogles, so the almanac said, often having an animal's head on a small, humanlike body-what the almanac called anthropoid, or like a man. Rossamund almost couldn't believe it: he had seen a nuglung, a real one. There were stories from ancient times that told of some of these nuglungs doing good things for people, though folk now would never believe such a notion. His almanac was typically brief on them, saying, as it always did about any kind of bogle, that avoidance was the best policy. The foundling reckoned such advice probably helped the monsters as much as people.
Opening a black lacquered box, Europe took out a soft drawstring bag with a stiffened circular bottom. It was a fiasco. Rossamund had seen them before. In them he knew women kept their rouges, blushes and balms: the tools of beauty. He did not think a fulgar would need such things, but, when she had finished dabbing and daubing at her face with the aid of a small looking glass, even a young lad like himself could not help but be amazed by the simple yet profound transformation. He did not think a little rosying of the cheeks and lips and whitening of the nose could be so flattering.
"A girl's got to look her best for the city," she offered simply to his gawping.
Fouracres turned in the driver's seat to say something and was visibly stunned, turning an unmanly red from earlobe to earlobe. He quickly resumed his original position and muttered over his shoulder awkwardly, "We'll… er… be at High Vesting in an hour or so, miss."
Europe smiled weakly. "Yes, we had deduced that for ourselves. A mere stone told us the distance about a mile back-but thank you for the thought." She hummed happily and watched the passing scene.
Recovering his composure, Fouracres once more spoke over his shoulder. "So, Rossamund, ye're going ter be a lamplighter, are yer?"
The foundling did not know how to answer this. Was he a lamplighter or was he now Europe's factotum? He looked at her quickly. Muffled in her thick coat, she paid him no attention whatsoever, returning to her usual regal reserve.
"That's what I am supposed for, sir," he ventured, glancing at Europe once more. "Though I am not really wanting it. Do you know much about them?"
"A little," answered the postman. As he spoke, he would spend some of the time looking at Rossamund from the corner of one eye and at the road with the corner of the other, or turn his back completely and focus on the path ahead. "I was thinking of becoming one myself, yer see, when the choices were afore me. As yer can see for yerselves, it didn't take my fancy."
Here was the proof of his dull future. "Too boring, Mister Fouracres?"
The postman paused, appearing bemused. "That's not so much it… as the reverse."
This was not the answer Rossamund had expected. He sat up. "How do you mean?"
"I chose the quiet life of a strolling postman, for the lot of a lamplighter was a little too dangerous for mine."
Rossamund found he was holding his breath. "Dangerous? I thought they just went out, lit the lamps and went back home."
With a chuckling snort, Fouracres looked sharply at Rossamund. "That they do-on stretches of road traveling the fringes of civilization, at times of the day that bogles love best ter move about in, contending with bandits, poachers, smugglers, mishaps on the road itself, living with only a handful o' others in isolated places. Then you have ter go about changing the water in the lamps themselves, regular as the seasons-that part, I'll grant yer, ain't interesting at all. Mmm, not the job for this fellow." The postman pointed to himself with his thumb as he returned his attention to the road. "My hours are long and strange enough and my pay as low again as any should bear, without having cause ter make any o' this worser by joining the lamplighter service." He gave Rossamund a cheeky, sidelong smile. "Ye, however, Mister Rossamund, seem ter be made of sterner stuff. Well, good for yer. It's a good thing yer harness is so fine, else yer might have something ter worry about. Howsoever, I'd get yerself a well-made hat afore yer venture up ter Winstermill."
Rossamund did not answer. His thoughts were turning on all the postman had just revealed. Bogles! Bandits! Perhaps the life of a lamplighter might be a whole lot more worthwhile after all? This clarified his path for him: now he was actually curious, even eager, to work his official trade. How do I tell Miss Europe this? The fulgar had said little more on her desire for him to become her factotum since the first day at the Harefoot Dig. He looked at her once more. Though her expression was resolutely aloof, she seemed sad-not momentarily unhappy, but troubled with deep, suppressed grief. How different she was from the talkative, boastful woman he had first met on the pastures of Sulk End. A tiny ache set in Rossamund's soul. He felt sorry for her loss of Licurius, however foul the leer had been, and he had an inkling that his devoted service might take that grief away. He was confused again.
Pondering intently on these things, he did not notice three crusty folk sitting by the side of the road with their rambling carts and rickety donkeys till the sound of their chatter caught his attention. They were sellers of vegetables of many kinds.
Fouracres hailed them as the landaulet passed. "Hoy! Gentle eekers, do yer have any letters ter send?"
All three smiled with genuine, almost bursting joy, one of them crying, "Ah, bless ye! Bless ye, Master Fourfields. No letters from us today." She marveled at the landaulet. "What a pretty pair o' legs ye're travelin' on this ev'nin'! Much easier on the boot leather than yer usual ones!" She tossed a large pumpkin to the postman.
"And blessings ter thee, Mother Fly! Mother Mold! Farmer Math! Sorry, I can't stop, but these 'pretty legs' have places they're taking me!" He grinned back, slowing the landaulet and catching the vegetable skillfully. "I'll be back along here termorrer. We'll have a good natter then. Thanks for the fruit, madam-t'will make for a fine soup ternight."
"Then I'll save me quizzin's fer anon," the old woman returned in a hoarse too-loud whisper, rolling her intensely curious gaze over Rossamund and, more especially, Europe.
The fulgar did not even stir, but continued her cool stare at the country on the opposite side. The foundling, however, smiled happily at this rustic dame and her companions, who all returned his friendly expression.
"Save them all, Mother, and get yerself waddling home at the right time," Fouracres said cheekily. "Darkness comes too early this time o' year, and the chance of bogles with it."
Mother Fly laughed a dry and crackling laugh. "And ye'd better pass on yerself, fancy-legs. Ye've still got a-ways to rattle before ye can make yer soup. Till tomorrer!"
With that they passed on, Mother Fly waving cheerfully.
When they had gone a little farther, Fouracres informed him quietly, "They're some of the eekers I was telling yer about. Good people, as hospitable as they get." Rossamund wondered how it was such happy folk as these could bear to live in those tottering cottages out in this bare, haunted place.
They crested a small rise in the road and before them the land spread out and down in a large basin that found its way to the sea. Rossamund assumed it must be the mighty Grume-though he had never seen it before. So much water, and as sickly a green as Master Fransitart or Master Heddlebulk or Master Pinsum had ever described. Rossamund marveled and stared fixedly. The sea! The sea! The cloudy surface seemed to be shifting constantly, much more than the Humour ever had. Flecks of dirty white danced, reared up, then disappeared-the tops of waves-and the smell of it blew to them from the basin below. It was like no other odor Rossamund had ever encountered. Sharp and salty, yet somehow sweet as well, almost like a hint of orange blossoms in spring.
Europe wrinkled her nose with a look of mild distaste.
Fouracres turned to them beaming with satisfaction. He breathed in deeply. "Ahhh! The stink o' the Grume. Nothing quite like it. They say that the kelp forests just offshore improve its stink somewhat, that out in the deeper waters it does not smell so sweet. Makes me glad I'm not a sailor. Now look there, my boy. That is High Vesting."
Below and before them, on the shores of the Grume, was a cluttered knot of marble, granite and masonry that made the high protecting walls and buildings of the fortress-city of High Vesting. It was not nearly as big as Boschenberg, but somehow seemed far more threatening. Great white towers, taller than any buildings Rossamund had known, stuck up from all the usual domes and spires. Out in the water giant blocks of stone had been laid out in a great groyne that protected the harbor. In this harbor, which the almanac had named the Mullhaven, were ships, actual ships! Even from here he could tell what kinds they were from his lessons under Master Heddlebulk.There were low, menacing rams; solid, blocklike cargoes and grand-cargoes; and sleek ships still running under sail in this age of the gastrine-many being guided and poked about the harbor by small gastrine craft known as drudges. He had been told of the great size of these vessels, but was not prepared for just how big they were. He could not wait to get to High Vesting now, to go down to its docks and stand near these monstrous craft. It might well be the last time he got to see ships.
He looked back at Europe, who had been so quiet the whole way. She too was staring at the fortress-city and looked bored. She turned to the foundling and seemed to search his face, heavy thoughts stirring inexplicably in her expression. Her attention remained fixed so for only an instant; then she went back to gazing at their destination.
As they drove down the southern side of the rise and into the basin, the Gainway became much broader, its paving smoother. On either side grew unbroken lanes of tall, leafless tress with smooth silver-gray bark and high curving branches. This late in autumn, their fallen leaves were piled in great drifts along the verges. Other roads and paths joined from the surrounding farms and villages, and with them more traffic. Some of their fellow travelers gave the landaulet a curious or suspicious inspection. Soon enough they joined the queue of vehicles and pedestrians waiting to pass the scrutiny of the gate wardens-who wore a uniform similar to the soldiers of Boschenberg-and enter High Vesting by her massive iron gates. Before long they would be within the walls.
With vague apprehension Rossamund wondered if, after all this time, Mister Germanicus would still be waiting for him.
AN OLD FRIEND RETURNS
Passage into the city had been easy. Fouracres had simply grinned at the gate wardens, said some pleasant words, and they had let them by with no more than a nod. Once beyond the gates Rossamund's head was swiveling left and right as he sought to see as much of this strange new place as possible. The buildings in High Vesting were generally taller than those in Boschenberg and made of a fine white stone, often with their foundations built of granite. Windows were taller, narrower, their panes rectangular rather than small diamonds. The streets, however, were wider and in better repair than those of Rossamund's home city.
Fouracres steered the landaulet nimbly through the throng of other vehicles: wheelbarrows, sedan chairs, carts, wagons, coaches and carriages as fine as Europe's, and some even finer. The smell of the Grume wafted up every south-facing street, brought upon breezes of frosty air. Europe covered her nose and mouth with a gloved hand.
As they went, Fouracres made arrangements. "Now what is to be yer destination here?"
Europe roused herself and spoke first. "I need to attend the offices of Messrs. Ibdy amp; Adby on the Pontoon Wigh," she said.
"Very well," the postman replied politely. "… And, Rossamund-yer mentioned something about Mister Germanicus at the Harbor Gov-"
"You can leave what he does and where he goes to me, postman!" Europe interrupted with a scowl. "You're my driver and you drive. He is my factotum, and even if only for now, he attends me! When I decide it is time, his needs shall be met. Till then, serve me!"
Fouracres scowled in return. "Last I knew, madam, he and most definitely I worked for the Emperor! So till I make a declaration otherwise, yer can keep yer 'serve me's' to yerself. I'm doing yer a favor, and I'll see it through, but I ain't yer servant by any more than common decency allows!"
Europe, her eyes slitted and glaring, looked as if she could say more, much more, but then she sagged and returned to her blank stare at the passing scene. "However you want it… Just drive, will you?" was all she said.
The postman drove on while Rossamund intently studied the right toe of his shoe, not daring to look up.
They came to a great square: an enormous paved area cordoned off from traffic and filled with fountains and commemorative columns. At each corner was a massive statue of the Arius Vigilans-the Vigilant Ram-a heavily horned he-sheep in various poses of stout defiance or regal repose. These were the representative animal of Rossamund's people the Hergotts, and seeing them so boldly displayed made him feel proud. Glamorous crowds filled the area, their energy and foreign costume a spectacle of its own.
On the opposite side of this grand square was their destination. Messrs. Ibdy amp; Adby, Mercantile amp; Supercargo was situated in a lofty building of glossy pink stone. Its front was an almost windowless mass of giant pilasters with an impressive door of dull brown bronze in their midst. Immediately above the door were two columns of windows, as narrow and tall as any other in this city. Rossamund counted the windows by row. Thirteen! He had never seen such a large structure, but from what he could gather, there were several about High Vesting.
As Fouracres stopped the landaulet in the common courtyard before the office tower of Messrs. Ibdy amp; Adby, Rossamund, unable to contain himself any longer, asked eagerly, "May I see the rams? Miss Europe? I might never get to see them ever again."
Gulls cavorted above. To the south, out over the Grume, great bales of pale yellow cloud boiled and piled up into the sky. Their flattened undersides were a dark and ominous green-gray.
Europe looked at him, then to the postman, who shrugged and said, with a weary smile, "May I suggest this, miss, that I wait here with yer fancy carriage while you do yer dealings and Rossamund be allowed to have a peek about. Aye?"
With a sigh, Europe pointed to a big clock upon the facade of an equally large building across the square. It was easily visible, and Rossamund had been taught his timings at the marine society. It was a little after the half hour of two.
"Be back here in one half of an hour, not later," she allowed, sternly.
"I will! I will!" Rossamund's heart raced as he leaped down. About to dash off, he remembered that morning and skittered back, holding out his hand to help Europe alight.
"Well done," she said, with a wry look. "You're learning."
He beamed with joy and hurried off. He had a smile for every person he passed: elegant couples out for a Domesday stroll; stevedores bearing loads; striped-shirted vinegaroons taking shore leave; flamboyantly wigged rams' captains in gorgeous frock coats doing much the same; important-looking men stuffed into stiff, ludicrously high collars talking on important things beneath feathered and furred thrice-highs. How wonderfully strange it felt to have that little time of liberty in this gorgeously foreign city!
With awe he stepped through the great iron gates that split the mighty seawall and allowed access to the city from the piers and berths. The wall's foundations were blackened by century-long lapping of the bitter waters of the Grume. All along its lofty summit were batteries of cannon; catapultlike devices called tormentums-for throwing great smoking bombs of the most venomous repellents; and lambasts-machines of war that flung spears dipped in various wicked poisons. As with all coastal cities, High Vesting was in deadly earnest about keeping the cunning monsters of the deep away.
Rossamund skipped past the seawall and down a long stone pier way. It was intersected by many long, high wooden wharves and lined with many smaller craft, some ironclad, some with hulls of wood. So many vessels were there, with their clutter of tall masts, that walking among them was like moving through a strange forest. Out beyond all this, however, out in the deeper waters of the Mullhaven, were the rams. It was these mighty vessels of war that he wanted to see. It was upon these that he had been expected to serve.
At the end of the pier, moored on a low dock that went out to the right, he discovered a frigate. These were one of the smaller oceangoing rams, with a shallow enough draft to be this close to shore. It was about the length of a monitor, but sat much higher out of the water, so that it could survive the swell of the sea. Fascinated, he happily let his head swell with all the instruction he had received and reading he had done on them. He inspected the single row of ports out of which the cannon would be run, counted each one-twenty-eight in all; he admired the graceful curve of the bow, which gave these warships their name as it ran out and down to the ram; he read the brass nameplate fixed to the fo'c'sle. Surprise, it said. Rossamund almost swooned. This vessel was famous! It was the fastest of its type in the whole navy, perhaps even the whole world. He had read of it in pamphlets and had even been taught of it at Madam Opera's. It had served faithfully for over one hundred years!
Then his gaze fixed upon an enormous, dark vessel out in the Mullhaven.
These were the largest of all the rams and this one was absolutely gigantic, dwarfing all the vessels about. Its bow-ram did not jut nearly so far as the frigate's, for it was thought too big and too slow to successfully charge other vessels. It relied instead on its thick strakes-the iron plates that armored the hull-and the two decks of 120 great-guns that armed either broadside. Rossamund had always thought this an excellent number of cannon: it meant that for a main-sovereign to fight effectively, she needed a crew of at least fourteen hundred men…
"Hello, Rosy Posy!" The cry intruded upon his technical romance.
He knew that voice.
Looking about, quickly he found a face he recognized aboard the Surprise. It was a fellow foundling two years his senior who had shipped off to serve in the navy eighteen months ago. His name was Snarl. He was taller, broader, looked stronger-but it was still Snarl. While at Madam Opera's, he had been, after Gosling, one of those most active in tormenting Rossamund.
He looked up at his fellow foundling of old, squinting into the glare of sunlit clouds. "Oh… hello, Snarl," he returned coolly. It should have been an occasion of pride to learn that one of his old bunk-mates was now serving aboard so renowned a ram, but the character of Snarl undid any feelings of such camaraderie.
"Well, well, by and by, it's ol' Missy-boots himself, come to see me sitting high on me mighty boat!" Snarl swaggered along the gangway to stand directly above Rossamund. He called to his fellow crewmen. "Look 'ere, lads, here's a fellow I grew up with."
Some of the younger members of the crew looked down upon the foundling standing upon the pier. Some even gave him a genuine grin.
Rossamund smiled back cautiously.
"As fine a grummet as ever there was, this one, all manners and kindness," Snarl continued in his high-handed voice. "Got a girl's name to go with it, haven't you, Rossamund?" Snarl had not changed.
Rossamund turned and walked back up the pier. "Good-bye, Snarl," he muttered.
He stepped onto a wharf with the brash laughter of the fellow society boy ringing after him. Though he had only been away from his old way of life for less than a fortnight, it already felt like a long time ago. To meet another child from there, rather than bringing it all back, only made this feeling of dislocation stronger. He wondered if Snarl had leaped from the decks of a moving cromster, watched a lahzar in a fight, thrown bothersalts in the face of some grinnlings or dragged an ailing fulgar to a wayhouse. Rossamund marveled that he had seen and done more in the last two weeks on his own than in two years in the foundlingery.
For a while he wandered about the many smaller craft berthed along either side, taking turns carelessly, trying hard not to brood upon this encounter. He had somehow thought that his fellow foundlings would all grow up once they had left the little world of Madam Opera's and become a little more sober, a little kinder.
He approached the end of yet another wharf. The clock over the square was still visible through all the masts. Rossamund checked again as he had several times so far: it was time to return. He went to turn back when a powerful smell briefly overpowered the perfume of the Grume. He knew that stink…
A firm hand cunningly pinched the back of his neck. "Well, what's this 'ere then, an' ol' chum returned to the fold?" It was Poundinch. The oily rivermaster loomed over the boy. "Miss us, did ye, Rosey-me-lad?"
Rossamund went slack and pale with terror, a deep, sinking terror that made him want to vomit.
"Ah, look-'e's gone all emotion'l at such an 'appy reunion," purred Poundinch.
Somehow Rossamund found his tongue. "Ah-ah-hello, Rivermaster P-Poundinch."
"Hello, Rosey-ol'-boy. I'm called Cap'n Poundinch when I'm in these parts, tho', so ye'll need to reschool yer tongue."
The pressure upon Rossamund's neck increased subtly but so skillfully that he was compelled to step forward toward a gangplank before him. There she was, the Hogshead, listing slightly to the aft ladeboard quarter but still very much intact. That was where the oh-so-familiar smell had come from. It would always be the smell of dread for Rossamund.
"Huh-how did you escape the monitors?" he somehow managed.
"Ah, Rosey-me-lad," Poundinch purred, tapping his greasy nose with the scarred and grubby forefinger of his free hand, "that's ol' Poundy's way-slipperier than swine's lard, me… Aren't ye 'appy for me?"
"… Um…" was all the foundling could offer.
Poundinch pushed him up the gangplank and followed closely behind. Rossamund thought briefly of leaping into the water, but he had been instructed, over and over, that the caustic waters of the Grume were no place for a person to find himself bobbing about. With that escape route unavailable, he found himself where he thought he would never be again-upon the deck of the Hogshead. Only Gibbon was here, no other crew. He was chewing his black fingernails as he stood by the splintered stump of the tiller.
"Look 'ere, Gibbon, th' lad couldn't stay away, 'e missed us so!" Poundinch kept shoving the foundling all the way to the hatchway. Rossamund pushed against each shove stubbornly.
Gibbon peered dumbly at the foundling for a moment, then his gaze sharpened. "Oh aye, oi rememb'r. 'Ello, boi'o."
Rossamund kept his head down. He was too far away, he knew, for Fouracres or Europe to spy him. He reckoned also that at this less-than-salubrious end of the docks other sailors would pay little heed to the subtle struggle taking place aboard the Hogshead.
The hatchway was open, as it usually was, and with that cunning neck-pinch, Poundinch forced the boy to start his way down the ladder. "Just goin' to finish up an ol' con-vosation with this'un 'ere," he called to Gibbon as he himself started down.
Rossamund descended slowly, his senses reacquainting themselves with the profound lack of light and the overwhelming stench. He could just make out that the hold had been cleared of all its barrels, yet the powerful odor of the swine's lard had remained, soaked into the very wood of the cromster's frames and decking-and with it the hint of some far worse fetor. Yet these smells were not all that had been left. A bright-limn hung from a central beam about halfway between the ladder and the bow. It helped little but was enough to show, to Rossamund's horror, that the three gruesome crates bound with strong iron smuggled aboard about a week ago were still there. Two of them were side by side near the ladder and one on its own several feet away. This lonely one suddenly shook violently.
Rossamund gave a tight yelp. He tried to scamper back up, but Poundinch blocked his ascent. The captain shouted at the lonely crate and, after a few shudders more, it became still. The hold was otherwise empty but for acerbic seawater leaking in from the stern end of the hold. Rossamund saw that it was already about an inch deep at the bottom of the steps.
"Ye knows what's in these 'ere crates, don't ye, lad?" Poundinch had stopped about halfway down and cast his hefty shadow over the foundling.
"Uh-I-n-no…" Rossamund spluttered and backed away from both Poundinch and the crates. The bilgewater came up to his ankles now.
"Aw, come now, ye were snoopin' about, listenin' and pryin' after we took 'em aboard. Tryin' to get somethin' over ol' Poundy, were ye? A li'l morsel to sell to 'is enemies, 'ey? A li'l bit o' lev'rage to make some deals?"
The nature of this rogue's suspicions revealed, Rossamund looked at him in disbelief.
Poundinch descended all the way to the bottom. "Those innocent rabbit eyes ye make don't work on me, mucky little mouse. I think I'll leave ye down 'ere to think again upon th' falsities of yer stubborn, lyin' tongue. We'll be back to collect them crates in a couple of 'ours, so ye'll 'ave a bit o' time to change th' tune of yer whistle." He grabbed Rossamund by the wrist, twisting it cruelly.
Tears started in the foundling's eyes as he was compelled to squirm and bend in order to lessen the pain, movement which brought him right by two crates. "But I don't know anything! I don't know anything! I just want to work as a lamplighter!" Rossamund howled, over and over.
Captain Poundinch ignored him and instead, quicker than a cat, gathered up Rossamund's hands and wound cord roughly all about them, fixing it to a loop of rope that held one of the crates together in such a way that it forced him to sit.
The boy's heart froze. He had been tied right up against a crate! His mind went a white blank of panic. "But!.. But!.." was all he could manage.
"Aye, 'but, but.' Ye're babblin' now, bain't ye? Got to make more sense if ye wants yer freedom, tho'." Poundinch put his greasy face next to Rossamund's. "Ye were sooo keen to know what were in me cargo! Well now ye can 'ave a good ol' gander, as close as ye could want for," he growled. "Ye've got about three 'ours till I return-plenty of time for ye to mull, and if ye're still whole enough to speak after such a time with me prettee pieces 'ere, we'll see what we might do with ye. Ye never know, lad, if ye're lucky, ye might get to live it large on th' vinegar waves, with ol' Poundy as yer ev'r faithful, ev'r vigilant cap'n!"
With that and nothing more Poundinch left, his boots thumping heavily, back up the way he had come. The hatch closed with a clang.
"I just want to be a lamplighter… " the boy sobbed. The seat of his longshanks already soaked in half an inch of water, he sat with his arms on his knees and his face buried in his sleeves. Overwhelmed with bitter hopelessness, Rossamund wept as he never had in his whole life.
Eventually calm came. He stopped crying and instead he listened. The Hogshead creaked in the tidal movements, the brine in the hold slopped ever so quietly and Rossamund's heart thumped, but that was all. He lifted his head and squinted about, his face puffy, stinging. It was very dim, but because of the bright-limn not so dark that the crates could not be distinguished clearly. Though he was overshadowed by the box he was bound to, his eyes adjusted to the weak light that also came from cracks about the hatchway. There was not even the slightest hint of movement from any of the three crates, not even the one that shook so determinedly before. Rossamund had been making all the noise he liked but still the things they contained had remained still. They must have been empty after all. Eyeing the gaps in the crate next to him, his mind whirled.
He would be missed, surely? Not by Europe, perhaps, but certainly by Fouracres. He'd come to the rescue, Rossamund was sure of it-Wouldn't he?… Yet doubt took hold, and he could not be certain of anything anymore. He was lost. How would they know where to find him? If Master Fransitart was aware of what had happened to him, he knew his old dormitory master would be furious and shift all obstacles to rescue him. But Master Fransitart did not know-and he was too far away to help. Rossamund rolled his eyes in his grief and his gaze caught a glimpse of something between the slats of the crate to which he was tied.
Two eyes stared back at him, yellow and inhumanly round.
Rossamund shrieked like a person touched with madness, and tugged and writhed wildly in his bonds. The crate jerked violently too, and the eyes disappeared. In blind panic he wrestled for his very life to get free!
It was all in vain. The knot he was bound with was a bailiff's shank, a cunning tangle that took two hands to tie but three to undo. He barely had a whole hand of fingers available between the two of them. Surrendering to whatever grisly fate he was now to suffer-"some 'orrible, gashing end," as Master Fransitart would say-Rossamund bowed his head and began once more to weep, waiting for some flash of pain or other rending violence.
Instead a sound came. It was a voice, small, soft and bubbling like a happy little runnel. "Look at you," it said. "Look at you, strange little one who can cry. No need for crying now, no, no, no. Freckle is here and here he is. Lowly he might be, but not the least. A friend he is, and friendly too. So no crying now, no no, nor screaming nor throwing nor bumping of poor Freckle and his head about this little gaol."
Despite himself Rossamund felt calmed, and reluctantly turned his head. The round yellow eyes had returned and were looking at him again, earnestly kind.
The foundling held his breath.
The eyes seemed to hesitate too. Then the voice that belonged to those eyes-that small, soft, babbling voice-said, "He is watching too, and knows you, oh yes, hm hm. Fret not. There is always a plan. Providence provides.You'll see, you'll see."
"Who… who are y-you?" Rossamund managed at last. He could see little else but those big eyes-maybe a small nose… he could not be sure.
"Why, I thought I said, or did I say I thought?" The eyes blinked a long, almost lazy blink. "Why, I am Freckle! Freckle who has been speaking all his thinking just now. I was afraid before, and I thought before that I would just think all my speaking and see what manner of strange little one you were. But I know now by your crying what you are and now I have no fear!" Though he could not see, Rossamund could well imagine this creature smiling a rather self-satisfied smile. "Tell, little cryer, what is your name?"
"Um… it's Rossamund."
There was a strange, gaggling noise, and Rossamund had the impression that this was Freckle's laugh. "I see and see I do. An obvious name. Here is a tree. I'll call it 'Tree.' Here is a dog. I'll call it 'Dog'! Very clever! What a witty fellow who gave it to you! They must be a funny fellow indeed!" There was more of the gaggling laugh.
Rossamund frowned. Witty and funny were not words he would have associated with Madam Opera, who had fixed his name by writing it in the ledger. "Why-why is my name so obvious?" the foundling pressed.
"Ah, your name is obvious by your weepy, weepy tears, little Rossamund, that is all, nothing more." This little fellow was very hard to understand. "And now we're done our meetings," it concluded. "I expect you've learned it that hands are shook together, to show a meeting met?"
A hand came out from a lower gap in the wood. This hand was about the same size as Rossamund's, though the fingers were longer, the wrist much thinner and the skin far rougher. Rossamund gawped at it: this was most definitely not a person's hand. He remembered himself, took it in his own grasp and politely shook. It felt warm and very much like the bark of a tree. Its grip was strong but gentle.
Looking into those bizarre yellow eyes, Rossamund tried to show trustworthiness and friendship in his own. If he had to suffer imprisonment and oppression, then getting a chance to make friends with a kindly bogle was an odd yet amazing consolation. "Very pleased to meet you, Mister Freckle," he said solemnly. Abuzz with curiosity, he could not help but go on and ask. "Excuse me, Mister Freckle… but are you a nuglung?"
Freckle laughed again. "They've taught you to divide and conquer too, I see-rule by division, divide by rules-the everyman creed. Ah, 'tis only fair. I named you first." The eyes blinked again. "As it is, you make me much bigger than my boots. No-no-no, a nuglung princeling am I not. I am just what I am, what the everyman might go calling a glammergorn-though really, I am just one lonely Freckle. There is no other Freckle, just this one Freckle, until he is no more." The eyes look skyward.
Rossamund had seen a nuglung earlier that day, the sparrowling in the olive bush, and now he was actually talking with a glamgorn-which is what he understood Freckle to mean by "glammergorn." These were even smaller than a nuglung, less powerful. Again he remembered the almanac's warning, that it was best not to get too close to one.
Well, he wondered, what would the writers of Master Matthius' Wandering Almanac say if they were watching me now?
"Give it to meeee," hissed a new and broken voice.
Rossamund started. The yellow eyes of Freckle blinked several times rapidly.
This new voice had come from the lonely crate on the steerboard side of the hold.
"Quiet, you!" Freckle warned.
"Give it to mee toooo." The broken voice came again, full of creepy, lugubrious longings. "And to meee-we want to suck out its marrow… ooh yes, and squish its eyeballs a'tween our rotted teeth." The crate from which it spoke rattled vigorously.
Rossamund peered at it. A hunched darkness thrashed about spasmodically within. Fortunately its cage was chained fast to a thick oak beam. Nevertheless he shuddered and began to pry at the lashings that gripped his wrists.
Freckle's voice became commanding and hard, contrary to his normal soft singsong. "His marrow is too well needed inside his bones, and his eyes are too busy at looking and weeping to need your gnawings!" The glamgorn's golden eyes disappeared. "Now to quiet with you!" His voice spoke from the other side of its box.
There was a thwip! and a curse and an extraordinarily loud hiss from the lonely crate. "That struck us in the eye! Now we must have an eye, an eye for an eye, an eye… lov-er-ly eye…" Rotten lips smacked together.
"I know it did, and this I know, for it was sent on its mission so," Freckle said proudly. "And even less eyes will you have if you don't be leaving us be!"
There was another loud hiss. "You'd not be so brave if we weren't bound so hard, scrumptious morsel. We plan to chew on your twiggy bones too… oh my, and me too…"
It became quiet.
Freckle's yellow eyes reappeared.
"What is that?" Rossamund whispered, still picking uselessly at the rope.
"That is an ill-made rever-man, all bits and bobs and falling apart. Those wicked ones who made him do not know their wicked business. He's not knit too well at all, and none too sharp in the knitted noggin neither. Oh how he hates, full of grieving over half memories and wild hungers! They hate we natural ones most of all, 'cause we are made all right and they are made the everyman's way-all wrong…"
A rever-man! A revenant! Rossamund knew of these things. They were put together by wicked people taking bits of dead bodies to make new creatures from them, all rotting limbs and ravenous. So that was Poundinch's secret trade, the reason for his suspicious conversations and the crazed flight from the Spindle. At last Rossamund had discovered the truth. Rivermaster-or Captain, if that was how it was to be now-Poundinch was a smuggler for the dark trades, a trafficker of corpses and half-made undead. That was why he pretended to haul such odoriferous cargoes as swine's lard and pungent herbs, to hide the stink of the contraband.
The foundling shuddered once more. He had to get away!
The hold of the Hogshead had now taken on a greater aspect of foul wickedness. Had it not, it still held a rever-man. Rossamund did not care how poorly made it might have been. He did not like the idea of being confined so closely with one. Its rotten reek was beginning to overpower the other rancid airs in the hold-even that of the swine's lard.
"Cut me loose!" he hissed to Freckle. "I have a knife still, hanging on my baldric. See?"
"Yes, I most definitely do see and see I do." There was a tug on Rossamund's scabbard. "Yet my own hands are enough to do a knife's work. Hemp and wood are one thing, Rossamund, but iron just another. I can loose your bonds but mine I cannot, unless you have learned your strength as well?"
The foundling frowned. He was not strong enough. What was the glamgorn talking about? His hopes dimmed, and he sat for a time in a gloom. Gradually he became aware that his bottom was beginning to sting, as if he were being bitten by a thousand little ants.
"Ow! Ow!" Rossamund realized he was experiencing the caustic nature of seawater for the first time. He had been sitting in the bilgewater long enough for it to start to eat at his skin. He stood as best he could, the rope bindings preventing him from achieving more than an awkward stoop. His backside stung.
A wicked, strangled giggle came from the lone crate.
"Not good for clothes nor delicate pink skin either," observed Freckle, ignoring the rever-man's malicious glee. "That's why I like my barky hide. It hides me better from sneaky eyes and stops the stinging of the water."
"Aye, I wish I had your skin," Rossamund agreed with a sagacious nod, "but just on my rear end." Wanting to pick up a previous thought, he continued. "Mister Freckle? Which nuglung do you serve?"
Freckle sniffed in a breath. "My, my-there's an everyman question if ever a question was one. No prying in private things! I've not asked you your private things and you shouldn't go asking upon my private things. They've taught you far too well, I can well see, too well."
Rossamund hung his head in shame. Somehow it made sense that this glamgorn would not want to be telling an everyman child-even one as friendly and open as Rossamund hoped he was being-much of secret bogle ways. The foundling was certain that if he were a bogle, he would not want to say a great deal to a person either-not unless he knew without a doubt that the person could be trusted. He apologized with a mutter, but pressed on to another mystery. "Please, at least, tell why my crying means you know my name?"
The glamgorn laughed his strange laugh. "Knowing, knowing-sometimes there has to be trusting too…" Freckle's golden eyes frowned, then became kindly once again. "I can see you ain't ready and I know there is a time and a place, a place and a time. I might be lowly, but even I know what to say and when not to say it. Yet the time might come for knowing things, and when the need of knowing's nigh, you'll know then what I do now."
This was no help at all. Rossamund wanted to push for more when there came the familiar thumping of boot steps on the deck above.
What now? Rossamund quickly became quiet and the glamgorn's eyes retreated into the obscurity of his prison.
Rossamund followed the steps as they thudded overhead and trod toward the hatch. It opened and Captain Poundinch peered down, his attention darting to each crate before stopping upon the foundling. "Well, Rosey-me-lad, I see ye're still in whole pieces." He grinned leeringly. "I've come back sooner than I said, I know, but I figured ye'll do yer thinkin' just as well upon me other tub, th' frigate Cockeril, as 'ere. Ye'll like 'er, she's a mite more spacious than th' poor ol' 'ogshead."
He waggled a short-barreled pistola hidden beneath his coattails. Eyeing the firelock in fright, Rossamund saw that its barrel was wider than usual-a weapon designed to knock a person down, to bludgeon him to death despite any type of proofing. "And I reckon this might serve as th' best gag for our little stint to the Cockeril. No 'ollerin's or screechin's from ye, an' there'll be no shootin's from me."
Poundinch released the knot that held Rossamund's wrists to Freckle's crate and jerked the foundling after him and back up the ladder. "So follow me lead and a simple jaunt from 'ere to there is all for ye and me to enjoy."
Rossamund strained his neck to try for a glimpse of Freckle. The glamgorn's now sad eyes showed briefly.
"Farewell…" the foundling mouthed, just as he was hefted clear off the ladder by the easy might of the lumbering captain. He caught one last sight of Freckle blinking a solitary sorrow-filled blink.
The cord that once tied his wrists now cut, Rossamund was forced to walk before Captain Poundinch, his fear of that large pistola the only leash.
Mighty thunderclouds boiled in the west and cast High Vesting in early gloom. It was clear that Poundinch thought the hour already dim enough to move his captive. Why else would he have returned to get me so soon? Rossamund reasoned.
One consolation was the fresher air, happy relief from the cloying, rotten fumes of the hold. As he was forced down the gangplank, Rossamund sucked in several headache-clearing breaths through his nose to cleanse it of the stink.
There was hardly another soul about as they went along the piers. Most of those they did pass by paid them no attention, and the few who did saw Poundinch and quickly stopped looking. Generally, the vessels berthed in this region of the docks were in bad repair, similar to the state of the Hogshead when Rossamund had first gone aboard, way back in Boschenberg. There was a strong sense that the authorities did not visit this part of the harbor very often. Consequently, Rossamund guessed that they were likely to be captained and crewed by the likes of the Hogshead's master, and were not places to flee to for help.
Between the stone and the sty, again! And what of poor, lonely Freckle too…?
The foundling walked on with his hands pushed hard into the pockets of his fine frock coat. It occurred to him once more to use his knife. Poundinch had still not taken it from him. Rossamund could not fathom why; perhaps he figured that the pistola, his great size and greater experience would all be deterrents enough. They were, and Rossamund let the idea go in despair.
"So ye met me cargo, then?" Captain Poundinch's rough voice intruded on the boy's calculations.
Rossamund grunted once and nodded.
"Ye see, whether ye knew nowt afore or not," Poundinch went on, playing it as if this were just an amiable conversation between friends, "nows ye do-ye knows it all, I expect, or nears enough-and with that bein' so, I cain't afford to 'ave ye out o' me sight. Don't worry, mind, life aboard th' Cockeril will be a might more interestin' than workin' as a lamplighter."
"I don't think so," Rossamund muttered between gritted teeth. He felt cornered and cheated.
"Come, lad, that's no way t' be!" Poundinch sounded genuinely hurt. "I'll be sparin' ye all that walkin' back and forth twiddlin' with th' lamps, as th' day goes out and comes back in again, on and on. Who'd want that?"
"I would." Rossamund had been raised to serve on a ram, but not this way and most definitely not with a master like Poundinch.
"What? An' waste all that wonde'ful learnin' ye got from yer society?" The captain clicked his tongue disapprovingly and shook his head. "Turn left 'ere, Rosey-boy."
They stepped onto a main dock way.
Rossamund was getting angrier and angrier. The injustice of his own situation, and even that of Freckle, gnawed at him. I don't want this! I have been letting other people tell me where to go, what to be, his thoughts fumed, I will not let this beggar force me to do anything more!
With that, he sat down right in the middle of the wharf.
Poundinch almost walked right over the top of him. "What's this 'ere!" he cursed. Giving a low growl like that of a crotchety dog, the captain then said, thick and heavy, "Get up!"
Rossamund did not stir. He refused to be forced against his will any longer. Master Fransitart, he knew with a certainty, would not have let himself be cowed in such a way. What is more, there were some people at the far end of the dock way that looked as if they might actually come to his aid.
"Geeetttt uuupp…" Poundinch seethed quietly, stepping over the foundling menacingly. "This li'l tantrum won't do ye any good, mucky li'l snot!" The captain leaned low and Rossamund heard the pistola being rattled near his ear as a threat. "Stand, frasart, or I'll make ye one of me cargo instead of me crew…!"
The boy's mind hummed now with a taut, thoughtless energy, poised at the debut of valiant effort. First leaning forward, then pushing up with hefty vigor, Rossamund stood. His crown and the back of his head collided sharply with first the chin and then the already crooked nose of Poundinch, sending sparks through the foundling's vision. The brute captain belched a stunned curse of the filthiest language and toppled clatteringly to the wooden planks of the wharf.
Rossamund did not wait to see what was to happen next. He just ran.
Chancing one rapid glance behind as he fled, he saw the evidence of his work: Poundinch sprawled on the dock way, fumbling between his deadly flintlock and the blood sputtering from his nostrils.
Rossamund dashed on, bounding over and skipping around all obstacles-on toward where he had spied those better-seeming people. They were no longer there! Regardless, he raced on. The sound of scuffling behind, then a steady pound pound told him that Poundinch was on his feet again and after him.
The chase was in earnest now.
With a stumbling skid, Rossamund darted right, up a connecting siding. He quickly saw that he had made a wrong turn. Without hesitation he retreated. Poundinch loomed, blood smeared over his mouth and chin-Too close! Too close!
"Get 'ere!" he shouted, but failed to close quickly enough on the nimble boy. Rossamund scrambled on with a panicked yelp as the captain stumbled, his hands gripping at vacated air.
With Poundinch now so near, Rossamund expected to hear the terrible, clapping report of the pistola and be sent to his doom with an oversized ball foiling his proofing and piercing his spine. He ducked his head without thinking, trying to make his legs move faster. He caught sight of the clock in the square, away to his left, half-hidden by all those masts. Though he was moving too quickly to be able to read its time, it gave him his bearings as he sprinted to the next connecting siding. Before him two figures stepped out, two looming shadows. Rossamund did not know whether to plead to them for help or to avoid them as best he could.
"Stop 'im! Th' thief stole me coin-bag!" bellowed the quicker-witted Poundinch.
That decided it for the foundling. Well aware that most people preferred the assertions of a grown man to the excuses of a child, Rossamund skipped desperately past one of the shadows-who seemed to ignore him, stepping past with a flash of deep magenta cloth-and nimbly into the grasping arms of the second.
He thrashed and squirmed wildly in that strong, steady grip, his panic making him deaf to the voice of his new captor. He looked back in horror to the charging captain closing in fury upon his prey.
"Let me go! Let me go!" Rossamund hollered. "He's a liar! He's a liar! Let me go!"
"Rossamund!" The stranger's rebuke finally penetrated. "Rossamund! I know he's a liar. It's me, Fouracres!"
In an instant the foundling's whirling mind was stunned to a halt.
There was the postman, his normally grinning mouth tight with consternation, his tricorn knocked onto the wharf by the power of Rossamund's struggle.
Utterly confused, Rossamund looked back in the direction of Poundinch, who called to Fouracres, "Well caught, good sir! Ye 'as done me a service!"
Yet between the cruel intentions of the captain and his victim stepped that deep magenta shadow. It was Europe.
They've come-both of them!
On came Captain Poundinch, clearly thinking the chase concluded in his favor, his boots pounding, pounding on the wood. "Thought ye could rob a fellow of 'is rightful prize, did ye?" he gloated, with a smugly grim sneer as he hurried to claim back Rossamund as his slave once more.
Without a word, and without hesitation, the fulgar stepped into the path of the captain. He towered over her, yet she calmly reached out her hand.
Zzzock! There was the briefest flash of green fire as she sent the suddenly amazed Poundinch, despite all his forward momentum, hurtling backward into the oaken side of a sailing ship. He hit it hard, the wind driven from his lungs with a belching cough. His eyes fixed in shock, he dropped through the gap between the hull of the boat and the planks of the wharf. There was a muffled splash… and that was all.
Her expression masterfully serene, Europe walked back to Fouracres and the now elated foundling. Taking Rossamund by the hand, she continued back along the wharf. "Come on, let's find this Mister Germanicus," she said quietly.
As they led him out of the docks, Rossamund's heart was a song of freedom. They've saved me! They've saved me! She saved me!
While they went, he answered all their questions, giving an excited account of who Poundinch was, of why the rivermaster had been chasing him, of what had been intended for him. Then he thought of Freckle-poor Freckle-more friendly and genuine than most people the foundling had ever met. His glee at his own liberation entirely evaporated. Perhaps Miss Europe is still in a rescuing frame of mind?
He stopped and said, "Miss Europe? Mister Fouracres? I have a friend back on the Hogshead who needs saving."
Europe let go of his hand and folded her arms. Pressing her chin against her chest, she looked at him shrewdly. "Really?" was all she said.
"Aye, Miss Europe, aye! I can't be free and him not!" Rossamund implored. "I can show us the way-I remember it, it isn't far! The boat's most surely still deserted. It was when I was there, and that was but a few minutes ago."
Fouracres pursed his ample lips. "Ye're asking a lot of us, Rossamund."
The foundling swallowed.
"And what of this Germanicus fellow?" quizzed the lahzar, with a deepening frown. "Is not your need to see him urgent?"
"But my friend helped me!" Rossamund cried. "We've got to get him free!"
"You make friends too easily, little man," Europe murmured.
Fouracres sighed. "But when in straits, yer prove yer mates," he mused. "I for one will help yer. Miss Europe must shift fer herself. Lead on, let's get this done before that brute swims his way clear!"
Rossamund did not entirely follow what Fouracres was saying, but understood his meaning. Grateful, he started back along the way he had run, looking back at Europe.
She had not moved.
With a long-suffering look, the lahzar rolled her eyes. "All right, little man! I'm coming… I'm coming," she said, and mouthed a sour complaint as she followed. She showed no inclination to hurry, despite the possibility of Poundinch's emerging once more from the vinegar waters. The fulgar lagged as they hurried back to the Hogshead, getting tetchy when Rossamund made a single false turn.
Yet he found the rotten, sinking cromster easily enough.
Nobody was apparent on deck.
With cunning grace, Fouracres crept aboard to check the hold below. Watching him from the berth, Rossamund could well see how the postman had survived the dangers of his employment.
Europe sat on a bollard, crossed her legs and made as if where she was, was just where she meant to be.
The postman quickly reappeared and quietly declared the Hogshead uncrewed. "She's a bit of a stinker," he added, "and a sinker too, by all evidence."
Rossamund hesitated for just a moment, overcoming his revulsion for this vessel and all the unhappy things that had happened to him aboard her.
Covering her nose with her handkerchief as she came aboard, Europe refused to go near the hold. "You were on here for how long?" she marveled.
Fouracres went below again and called, "Which cage, Rossamund?"
The foundling went to the hatchway and pointed to the prison that held Freckle, then to the third box-crate. "But watch out for that other one over there," he warned. "It's got a rever in it."
The postman rapidly took a step away from the dangerous crate. "Yer what?" he barked. "I can see why yer didn't much like being on this bucket!" Several times he turned a nervous eye to it as he crouched down and tinkered with the lock of Freckle's own cage.
Rossamund had no desire to go down into the hold while the rever-man remained, and stayed at the top of the ladder. It was only then it dawned on Rossamund that Europe-or even Fouracres-might not appreciate rescuing a glamgorn, a monster. He almost panicked. What will Miss Europe do? Yet whatever might happen, he would rather chance this than knowingly leave Freckle in the certain misery of his current condition.
Though Rossamund did not see how he had done it, Fouracres released the lock, saying, "There yer are, friend o' Rossamund, time ter be moving on."
As he swung open the top of the crate, it was slammed the rest of the way as Freckle suddenly sprung from the top of his old prison, wailing delightedly, "Free! Free! Free! Poor Freckle's had enough!"
At that same moment the rever in the third box-crate shook it mightily and started up a wretched wailing. "Let us out! Let us out! Aeeiii!We want to eat him! Let us out!"
Not even Miss Europe, when she had fought the grinnlings, moved as quickly as Fouracres at these simultaneous eruptions from the box-crates. In a single step the postman both spun about and sprang away, a tomahawk swinging ready in hand.
Quicker than the eye, the glamgorn leaped right over Fouracres and shot up the ladder. All that Rossamund saw of it was a small brown thing all legs and arms and those alien yellow eyes. These eyes caught Rossamund's own as Freckle dashed past-an extremely brief yet strangely meaningful contact-before the glamgorn sprang off the deck and disappeared into the murky liquid of the Grume.
Wide-eyed with shock, "Oh…" was all Rossamund could think to say.
Fouracres blinked up at him in equal surprise and came quickly away from the rantings of the rever. "There yer be, yer friend is free. Let's leave this wild, broken fellow ter his raging."
At the commotion Europe had approached. "Rossamund," she purred with icy malice, "was that your friend?"
The foundling turned to her and, seeing her cold expression, looked at his feet. "Ah… a-aye."
She gave him a look of mild contempt. "You made me come down here to rescue a bogle?… Licurius was right!" she growled quietly. "You really are a wretched little sedorner."
"Look here!" Fouracres declared, reaching the top of the ladder. "There's no need to be spitting such filthy words!"
Rossamund's eyes narrowed obstinately and he scowled at the fulgar. "And Fransitart is right!You're the worst monster of all! You just go around killing no matter what! That poor schrewd did nothing to you!"
"Of all the…!" Indignant, Europe took a step toward him.
This time he was not daunted. This time he was not going to just be meek. This time he would defend himself like a man should.
Fouracres moved as if to intervene.
Europe became still. She looked from the boy to the man, her expression twisting weirdly. She dropped her head and began to make a low, unnerving noise in her throat.
Rossamund glanced at Fouracres, who shrugged.
The foundling took a step toward her and started as she threw her head back at last, and let out a gush of laughter. Great guffaws shook her-mighty, mirthful sobs.
Rossamund froze in bewilderment. "Miss Europe…?"
The lahzar sank to her knees and laughed and laughed and laughed.
Going to her side, Rossamund crouched down and tried to peer into her face. He looked to the postman again.
Shaking his head, Fouracres was just as bewildered.
Eventually Europe's violent glee ebbed. Panting, still chuckling, she looked at the foundling from the corner of her eye. "Ah, little man!" she wheezed softly. "You are about the strangest, bravest little fellow I have ever met!" Taking off her quartz glasses and dabbing tears, the lahzar got back to her feet. She perched her glasses back on her nose, put on warm doeskins against the increasing cold and offered Rossamund her hand, saying, "Now let's find this Mister Germanicus."
Rossamund looked at the hand. He did not know what to think of her. Besides which, what was he to think of Freckle, who had fled with no farewells? This world is too hard, he concluded.
Gripping the lahzar's fingers gingerly, he descended the gangplank off the Hogshead and wished never to see that vessel-or smell it-again. Behind them they could hear the muffled shrieking of the rever, still trapped in its tiny prison.
As they walked back through the moored vessels, Fouracres explained to him their own side of his original liberation.
It had taken Europe longer than the prescribed half an hour to settle up payments that were her due from her clients. By the time she had emerged from the pink building, Fouracres was already concerned whether Rossamund was just being irresponsible, or if something was wrong.
"Without even waiting to set the landaulet someplace safe, Europe was after yer," Fouracres stated matter-of-factly. "I had to catch her up and we simply walked all over the docks, asked for any sights of yer, turning up nothing for the longest time. Then some fellow with a westerner's accent and the blackest fingernails I have ever seen suggested we might try looking again in the direction where we found yer-took a few sous to wheedle even this from him.
"We had already been searching an hour or more, and had been over several parts of the docks twice. We were in the act of following that fellow's advice, when I spied yer running yer heart out and looking as if all the utterworsts of Loquor were at yer tail. Having crossed and recrossed that particular place several times, we simply made sure we took a way that would cut yer off… and whoever was scaring yer," he added grimly. "The rest yer were there ter witness."
Rossamund could almost not believe that these two had striven so hard to find him, that Europe had led the way in his liberation. How was he to feel about her now? If she was this loyal, he would happily serve as her factotum, but then… she hates monsters so bitterly. Oh, I don't know…! Rossamund was beginning to find his lack of gumption extremely frustrating.
It was Europe who settled the question as they drove on in the landaulet. "Something is not quite right inside me, little man," she declared. "I felt it when I sent that odious bully into the harbor for a bath, and it's got a lot to do with why I let your bogle chum go. The spasm those nights ago has done more harm than I care for. I need to see my surgeon very soon."
"Are you really ill?" Rossamund asked.
Europe smiled gravely. "I'm not dying, but I must set out on the soonest vessel for Sinster." She paused for a moment.
The foundling watched her intently.
Europe returned his stare.
"This is my aim," she continued finally. "You go to Winstermill and serve there faithfully, as you have me, as the lamplighter you are intended to be. I will go to Sinster to get repaired. I have no idea how long that might take, but when I am back to my healthy self, I will come by your way, little man, and see how you're doing."
Rossamund's mind boggled at the thought of what "to get repaired" actually involved. He knew better than to ask, though.
She bent down and filled his senses with her sweet perfume. "Perhaps then, you might consider again the opportunity to become my helper?"
He just smiled and nodded. He liked this and was glad it was Europe who had formulated such a plan. It gave him his task to do right now and offered him time to think further on the opportunities a factotum's life might offer rather than a lamplighter's career.
The Offices of the Chief Harbor Governor were not, a little surprisingly, near the port but in the administrative center of High Vesting. The low marble-white building was so much like all the others in this district that Rossamund was glad he had Fouracres with him, for he was sure he would never have been able to find it on his own.
Within they discovered that Mister Germanicus had left in a dudgeon three days before. However, he had left instructions of his own referring to the appearance of one "lazy marine society boy." These instructions were characteristically simple: he was to make his way to Winstermill forthwith, where he was expected.
With Fouracres there to smooth the way and vouch for Rossamund whenever it was needed, the clerks and sergeants of the Harbor Governor were industrious in their help. They ratified the remains of his existing traveling certificates and identification papers, writing up new travel documents. They even wrote a covering letter, explaining-they said-the unusual state of Rossamund's papers. What a relief it was for him-he had expected a lot of hard questions and suspicious innuendo. He was now at liberty to make his way to Winstermill.
To avoid any possibility of reprisal by Poundinch or his crew, and in keeping with Mister Germanicus' instructions, it was determined that Rossamund should leave the very next day. They drove to a fancy hostelry known as the Fox Hole. Europe preferred it as her place of repose whenever she was in High Vesting.
Before its facade of grand marble columns, with Europe organizing the footmen in the distribution of her luggage, Fouracres bid Rossamund farewell. "Now I reckon I just might get the courts ter bring some of their burdensome interest ter bear on the Cockeril and her nefarious captain-that's the name of her, ain't it?"
"Aye, Mister Fouracres," Rossamund nodded. "It was the Cockeril all right, and the Hogshead too." He sincerely hoped that such "burdensome interest" might bring the dastardly career of Captain Poundinch to a necessary end.
The foundling stepped closer to Fouracres and whispered, "And what of the glamgorn we saved? It was a shame that he had to run off so fast. Will he be all right?"
"It's the way of those little fellows," said Fouracres, with a fatherly pat on the foundling's head. "Deep in unfriendly places yer can hardly blame the bogle for skipping away quick. As ter how he'll fare, I can't say I rightly know, though I can sure tell yer those little fellows are wily and tough. Trust it ter Providence, Mister Rossamund-it's all yer can do."
Rossamund's burden lightened just a little. He sighed.
Fouracres stood and smiled sadly down at him. "I will keep my eye out for yer, Mister Rossamund. I have reason ter go Winstermill way ev'ry now and then. So ter thee I will say fer now: till next occasion. Don't trust everybody yer meet-though I reckon she might be more honorable than she seems." He indicated the imperious fulgar with a subtle look.
Seeing this, Europe approached them. "Good-bye, Postman Fouracres. Thank you for your help." She gave a very slight, almost curtsylike bow and tried to hand something to him. A bill of folding money.
Fouracres bowed deeply, but did not take what was offered. "As I said when we were hunting fer Rossamund, I have no need fer reward. Ter serve such a fair face and in such friendly company is reward in itself. Thank yer, but no."
With a wry look, Europe retracted her offering and entered the hostelry.
"Off I go now, Rossamund, ter my own abode. Stay safe."
The postman and the foundling shook manly hands.
Finally Rossamund had made a friend, and now they were to part. He began to feel as if he would never settle down, never have loved ones close by, to call his own. "I hope you can come and see me soon, Mister Fouracres. I reckon a friendly face will be really welcome where I'm going. I hope I find some more."
"Surely yer will, surely yer will," the postman answered softly. "The timing of such things is near often perfect. Take care."
With Rossamund watching mournfully, Fouracres walked away, with a wave, into the gathering dark.
WITH THE LAMPLIGHTERS
After a night spent in as comfortable and as peaceful a sleep as money can buy, Rossamund set out early by coach. The morning was of the clear, bitterly cold kind characteristic of the final month of autumn. Farewells with Europe had been strange. She had insisted on seeing him all the way into the coach and safely started on this final stretch of the journey. He would be traveling alone, trusted with carrying dispatches for the Lamplighter Marshal and his staff in Winstermill. He had wrapped the bundle of documents and letters in wax paper and hidden the parcel at the bottom of his valise.
Now he sat in the clumsy bulk of the coach, another first on this journey of firsts-leaning out of the window to bid Europe good-bye. She had been more impatient than was usual, even downright rude, that is if she said anything at all. Rossamund was wondering why she had even bothered. As it came to the moment for him to leave, she suddenly grasped his hands in hers, placing into them a small purse. Without a word, she looked deeply into his eyes, holding him like this for what seemed the longest time. He did not know what to say to her. He would help her if ever she needed it, but he had no idea how he felt about her. Yet Rossamund wanted to say something. He had shared the most terrifying times in his life with this mercurial fulgar. Surely that rated some comment, some word of understanding between them.
Yet, before he could utter anything, there was a loud crack of the driver's whip and the coach lurched forward, tearing his hands free from Europe's firm grasp. His heart stung with a nameless regret and he poked his head quickly out of the window. "Good-bye, Miss Europe!" he called, his voice seeming small and silly. "Get well again!"
They stared at each other across the ever-growing gap. Europe's hands were pressed together before her mouth, but she did not stir. Rossamund waved again, even more vigorously. "Good-bye!" he cried.
Still the fulgar continued to stare after him. Too soon he lost her in the crowd of intervening traffic. He caught a final glimpse of her, and then she was gone.
Despite his confusion, despite her brutal way of life, he felt a great weight of sadness at the parting. With a heavy heart he sat down again and looked inside the purse she had given him. A vague determination somewhere within him vowed never to part with this gift. There were coins within-gold coins! — and a fold of paper. He gave a furtive look at the other passengers. In the coach with him was a thin lady in rich satins bundled up against the cold in a dark violet cloak; sitting opposite her and to Rossamund's right was an equally thin man in simple black proofing who made a study of completely ignoring the other two passengers. Neither of these paid him any mind, and so he counted the coins. Ten sous!
Uncreasing the paper, he saw that it was folding money written up to the value of a further five sous. Here he held more money in his hands than he had ever even seen before! It made him feel very strange. There was another leaf of paper, a note, wrapped up with the folding money. It was written in a delicately elegant hand, the mark of a highly ranked lady, and it read:
For Rossamund, to buy yourself a new hat with.
A fair portion of the reward for our adventure.
You have been a revelation.
With more affection than I am used to,
Europa, Duchess-in-waiting of Naimes.
Rossamund's eyes went wide. Europe-or "Europa," as he had just discovered-was a duchess-in-waiting! He had been spending his time with a peer, a highly ranked noble, and one in line to rule a whole city-state! He had rescued, and been rescued by, one who was apparently so far above him in rank, she should never have to even think on him. It was little wonder she was so confident, so self-possessed. Europe had become an even profounder mystery.
Feeling faintly uneasy about being given money earned in the slaughter of an undeserving creature, Rossamund buried the gift-purse down at the bottom of his satchel. North out of High Vesting went the coach, only a day after he had arrived, and back up the Gainway, whipping past the vegetable sellers. Rossamund was on the wrong side of the vehicle to be able to wave at them. They traveled faster than the landaulet had on the contrary journey and arrived at the Harefoot Dig by midday. Here the horses were changed and his two traveling companions went into the wayhouse to buy their lunch. Rossamund remained within the transport and dined on some of the supplies Europe had provided. These included withered ox kidney on expensive dark brown crust and a sachet of small, crescent-shaped nuts that the fulgar had called cashew stalks, with a taste wonderfully salty and exotically sweet.
Soon enough the journey was resumed. They soon made it to Silvernook, passing through with only a pause to pick up mail. Then on they went and entered country Rossamund had not yet seen. The woodland of the Brindleshaws extended much further north, then stopped quite abruptly as the hills dropped away sharply to an expanse of cultivated flatlands. They looked familiar to the foundling and, from what he could gather from the map in the almanac, he guessed this area to be just another part of Sulk.
Twice more the coach stopped: once by a great hedge, behind which Rossamund could spy a grand manor house, to let off the silent woman; and a second time in the middle of what appeared to be a great expanse of swampy fields and nothing more. Here the sullen man disembarked, saying "Good afternoon" as he did, catching the foundling so unawares he was not able to respond in time. With both traveling companions gone, Rossamund had the rare privilege of traveling in a hired coach on his own. He kicked off his shoes and lounged about on either seat, staring at great length at the passing scenes on either side. They went through several small settlements, each one guarded, fenced and gated.
As the coach continued on, the cold clear day became overcast in a thin sort of way, making the afternoon sun a dull off-yellow and turning the veil-like clouds gun-metal gray. The land was becoming wilder here, less well tended and fertile. There was something eerie about its arid breadth. Threwd brooded here, and while the day's orb was setting, it was a great relief to see the final destination come into view. There, still a few miles distant around a long bend, window-lights twinkling, sat Winstermill Manse.
The name of Winstermill was-so Rossamund's almanac read-a corruption of a more ancient title, Winstreslewe, given to a ruined fortress upon the high foundations of which the manse now stood. It was built right by a long line of low, yet steep-sided hills and at the beginning of a great gorge which cut through this same range. The manse looked like a country house, yet so much larger, squatter, mightier and much more solid. It had a great many more roofs of heavy lead shingles rising higher and higher as they receded from the front of the structure like a complex range of ever taller hillocks. From the midst of these, lofty chimneys even taller than those of the Harefoot Dig pointed heavenward in baffling profusion like blunt spines. There were several round, crenellated strong points projecting out from a roof's myriad slopes, the barrels of great-guns showing from some of them.
The manse's outer walls were angled inward to help deflect the blow of a cannon shot; its lower windows narrow slits barely wide enough to admit light. The great gate was made of thick, weather-greened bronze. Lamps blazed above this threatening portal and an enormous flag, the spandarion of the Empire, a golden owl over a field of red and white, barely showing in the dark, curled and whipped above it all. This was a place made to stand against all threats, and Rossamund admired its grim defenses.
Most significantly of all, for one about to become a lamplighter, was the long line of brightly flaring lanterns that marched away from Winstermill, threading eastward like a great, glittering necklace, disappearing into the distant dark of the gorge. It was such as these, raised high on tall posts of black iron, that he was surely expected to tend.
The coach turned off the main way, which disappeared into a tunnel made through the very foundations of the manse, and rattled up a steep drive to Winstermill's bronze gates. These were already opening, and the coach was admitted without having to halt. Within the curtain of the manse's outer fortifications, Rossamund had expected to find a bustle of diligent folk marching about on serious business. Instead it was empty of any bustle, or even hustle, and no serious business seemed to be going on anywhere nearby.
A single yardsman came out to them, touching his hat as greeting. "Winstermill!" a coachman cried. "Change ve-hickles if ye wish to travel further!"
Rossamund alighted and looked about the well-lit yard. It was wide and flat and bare but for one stunted, leafless tree growing by a farther wall. His valise was quickly retrieved for him, and the coach clattered away, together with the yardsman, retreating somewhere beyond the side of the structure. Rossamund presumed the horses would be stabled, and the drivers rested for the return leg the following day.
The boy was left all alone now, and stood before these august headquarters uncertain of what to do next. As he waited, he wrestled out the bundle of dispatches, ready to hand them to whoever should ask for them. Still no one sallied forth to greet him. In the end, if only to avoid the bitter cold, he walked to the most important-looking set of doors and, finding them unbarred, pushed his way within.
Inside was a large, blank room, square and empty. There was another door at the farther end and Rossamund walked over to this and went through. Now he found himself at one end of a long wide hall with walls painted green like a lime in season and a single narrow rug patterned in carnelian and black running the whole length of the stone floor. A person in uniform stood about halfway down. Rossamund strode along this lime hallway and offered up the dispatches promptly to this uniformed person-a tough-looking fellow with oddly cut hair.
As he did, Rossamund addressed the man just as he had been trained to do, for serving upon a ram. "Rossamund Bookchild, sir, recently arrived and ready to serve aboard-uh-to serve… you… here."
The rough-looking fellow looked at him, and then at the wad of paper the foundling held, without curiosity. "Not for me, son. Hand it to one of those pushers-of-pencils inside there," he said, with gruff authority, pointing to a pair of flimsy-looking, finely carved doors at the end of the lime hall.
"Oh…" said Rossamund.
His initial flush of courage now spent, the foundling entered those ornamented doors nervously. Beyond was an enormous, square space with a ceiling high above, and the clatter of the opening door rang and echoed within. Along the distant farther wall was a massive wooden structure of drawers, cabinets and rolling stepladders-what he would learn later was the immense and complex document catalog, in which all the correspondence and paperwork of the lamplighters eventually found its final burial place. To the foundling's left, and to his right, facing out from either wall, were two dark wood desks. A studious-looking man worked behind each, the one on the left looking up at him briefly as he entered, and the one on the right keeping his head down and his hand scribbling.
Between the two desks was a great blank area of cold slate, and Rossamund, with each footstep clip-clopping too loudly, moved to stand right in the middle of this barren space. He looked to his right, then to his left. Both clerks continued their close attention to their work and offered nothing to the new arrival. With no idea of which way to go, Rossamund repeated a little rhyme in his head to solve this puzzle, thinking either left or right with each subsequent word. The rhyme itself was a short list of faraway, semi-mythical and notoriously threwdish places, and it always fired Rossamund's imagination: Ichor, Liquor, Loquor, Fiel My decision now reveal.
He finished on his right. Right it is! He went clip-clop, clip-clop and stood before that desk. Holding out the letters, he repeated himself, "Rossamund Bookchild, sir, recently arrived and ready to serve as a lamplighter."
This clerk looked up with a scowl upon his sharp, bespectacled face. He continued to write, even though his attention was no longer on the task.
"Not me, child!" he snarled. "Him!" He put his nose back to his scribbling.
He could only have meant the other clerk, way across on the opposite side.
Right it isn't, then. Rossamund held back a sigh.
He turned on his heel and clip-clopped-clip-clopped to the left-hand desk and its equally diligent clerk. He spoke his introduction for a third time, and this clerk stopped writing, put down his pencil and stood.
"Welcome, Rossamund Bookchild. My name is Inkwill. I am the registry clerk. You have been expected." He took the dispatch bundle from the foundling and they shook hands. "It's a good thing you have arrived now. After today we were going to give up on you. If you had got here tomorrow, we would have turned you away, I'm afraid. In the nick of time, as they say."
As Inkwill the registry clerk sorted through the dispatches, he held up a tightly folded oblong of fine linen paper.
"This is yours, I reckon," he said, waving the article at Rossamund.
Puzzled, Rossamund took it slowly. It was a letter made out to him in the script of someone he knew well and loved dearly: Verline. He had been carrying it the whole length of his travel from High Vesting, and could have read and reread it at his leisure aboard the coach. He was desperate to open it, but had to wait.
Inkwill put the dispatches down and sat again. He organized a wad of papers, took up his pencil and began to quiz Rossamund with all manner of question: age, eye color, height, weight, origin, race; on and on they went. Often they were incomprehensible: political affinities, species bias. Whichever answer Rossamund gave, no matter how incoherent, was filled in on the relevant forms. When each form was completed, Inkwill rewrote it twice more. Having completed this task, he then looked over the foundling's newly redrafted documents and papers and read the covering letter with fixed attention.
Rossamund's eyes nearly bugged from their sockets as he waited, breath held, to see how these temporary certificates would be received.
"I see," Inkwill said at last. "Witherscrawl won't like these; neither will the Marshal… 'tis no matter. These are perfectly legal." He gave a slight smile as his attention shifted to the boy before him. "Been through some… interesting times getting here, have we?"
Rossamund nodded emphatically. "Aye, sir, an adventure of them."
Inkwill's smile broadened. "You'll have to tell me sometime." With that he took out yet more documents and began copying pertinent details from Rossamund's papers. When the registry clerk was done, and all the forms properly blotted and indexed, he politely told Rossamund that he was to now make his way over to the other clerk.
"He is our indexer, and he is called Witherscrawl. He will enter you into our manning list, so that from now on you will be called on the roll, and be reckoned a lamplighter." Inkwill stood and shook Rossamund's hand once more. "Welcome to the Emperor's Service."
"Thank you, Mister Inkwill," Rossamund returned, somewhat bewildered. "I will try and do my very best, just as I was taught to, sir."
"Good for you. Now take this receipt and this excuse-card to Witherscrawl. I will see you tomorrow."
With that, Inkwill went on with whatever it was he went on with, and ceased paying any attention to the foundling.
Clutching a wallet of new papers and certificates, Rossamund stepped cautiously across the gap back to the sharp-faced, sharp-mannered clerk Witherscrawl.
"Um… Mister Witherscrawl, I…" he began.
With a sour look, the clerk snatched the receipt and excuse-card from Rossamund's hand.
"I, ah…" the boy tried.
"Shut it! I know my business!" The indexer looked down at the excuse-card with sinister deliberation and a cruel turn to his mouth. A hoarse growl wheezed in his throat. "Little weevil couldn't do a simple thing like keep his most important papers safe…!" His beady eyes shot Rossamund an evil glare. "Makes me wonder why we are even bothering to take him in. Sit down!"
With a start, and, as there were no chairs about, Rossamund obediently sat on the cold stone floor.
Taking a pencil in both hands, Witherscrawl proceeded to write furiously into several books and ledgers, and onto several lists. When each entry was done, he would thump it violently with a wooden handle attached to a large, flat sponge. Rossamund winced at every blow.
Witherscrawl eventually leaned over his desk and looked down upon the foundling, his eyes squinting meanly behind his spectacles. "You have certainly taken your time to get here," he spat. "Gave Germanicus an awful messing around, you did. Too good for us, are you, to make your way promptly?" He poked a finger at Rossamund's face. "A lamplighter's life is punctuality, boy! You had better get your habits about this, or your time with us will be brief-troubled and brief."
Those were familiar words.
"Ah-aye, Mister Witherscrawl."
The clerk leaned across the desk and sneered. "Do not address me, boy, as anything other than 'sir.' Have you got that? You don't need to know my name, and you certainly have not earned the privilege to use it!"
Rossamund felt his neck contract like a turtle's. "A-aye… sir…"
Finally, and with half-uttered protestations about the inconvenience, Witherscrawl led Rossamund through a small side door and down the narrowest corridors to a small, drab cell with flaking walls. This room, furnished with only a metal stretcher (not unlike the one he had slept on for most of his time at the foundlingery), was to be his bunk for the night.
"Tomorrow," Witherscrawl informed him, "you will be woken at five of the morning, if you are not already up by then, and must move immediately to the parade yard, for the calling of the roll. Then you'll meet the Lamplighter Marshal, our officer commanding. Then you will receive your routine and begin your instruction. Do you understand?"
"Aye, sir." Rossamund was beginning to feel, all over again, the familiar doubts about the desirability of this occupation. Without a bath or even a wash to clean off the grime of travel, he was told that he was to have his bright-limn extinguished in no more than fifteen minutes.
Extracting another "Aye, sir!" from the new arrival, Witherscrawl left Rossamund to prepare for sleep. The only thing on the foundling's mind, though, was the letter he held in his hand: the precious letter with dearest Verline's unmistakable writing upon it, the letter addressed to him personally. It was like a sweet song to his tired soul, an encouragement from those far off-he was still thought of, he was remembered.
He sat down on the cot, causing it to creak loudly even under his slight weight. Hands shaking a little with excitement, he pried open the seal and many securing folds to reveal the message within. The date-twenty-third day of Lirium-was scrawled at the top. It had been written five days ago, the day Rossamund had been discovered hiding in that boxthorn by Europe. Eagerly, he read on: My dear and most missed Rossamund, How I wish I could right now see you here in front of me. I would hold you till you squirmed out of my grasp and stood there looking at me bashfully, like you used to do. As this cannot be, simple correspondence is all I have (I thank Madam Opera for teaching me my letters!).
Yet I hug you even now, in my heart, and pray constantly too that you might be safe and thriving. It's silly of me I know but I miss you-see! My tears have smeared the ink! One day, find your way back to me, even just for a visit, so I might see you grown and well, and be filled with pride at what a fine man you are undoubtedly becoming. We could take a rest-cure to my sister, so I might show you off to her as well.
I have to tell you too that dear Master Fransitart is determined to come to you at Winstermill, or wherever you will be stationed on the Wormway. Though he does not show it, nor say what the cause is, I can tell that he is greatly distressed. All he will say is that there is something he should have told you long ago-though he will not speak what that is. He says that he must tell you only, in your company alone, and does not want to risk such things in letters. Oh Rossamund, what can it be? Do you know?
Regardless, what he has to say is not so much of my worry, but rather that he is getting old, as vinegaroons go, and his pith is beginning to fail him. I don't want to worry you, Rossamund, heart-of-my-heart, but I think you need to know, so that you might be ready to care and comfort him, who has done as much for you for so long, when he finally arrives to you. I am frightened that this journey will be his last, my heart, so look out for him-he says he intends to leave for Winstermill as soon as winter is past its worst and the season is fit for traveling once more for one of his poor health (he listened to my pleas in this at least). Expect him within the last week of Herse, or the first week of Orio at the latest. Look out for him then, won't you?
I must end, for Madam is demanding her bath, but reply to this the instant you get it, for I-we-ache to know that you are well.
Master Fransitart sends you his blessings, or he would if he knew I was writing you. If he did know, I am sure he would tell you to stay at your task till he comes, no matter how anxious I might get.
I send you my love-filled blessings too, and over again.
Most assuredly your Verline
PS: By the way-though this is not so important-you will not be surprised, I am sure, to learn that the day before yesterday, Gosling ran away from us, and cannot be found. I am ashamed to be so uncharitable, but the mood here has lightened considerably. Write me as soon as you can, please! Also, Master Craumpalin wishes to know if you have had any use for his potives.
While Rossamund read the letter, he was first moved with joy, but then to increasing alarm. Had Master Fransitart, ill as he was, finally repented of letting him go and now planned to fetch him back to the oppression of the foundlingery? Was this the big secret? It's the first week of Pulchrys now… He counted the months on his knuckles: Pulchrys, Brumis, Pulvis, Heimio, Herse, Orio: that means he'll be here in four, maybe five months!
As to the news about Gosling: well, Verline was right-Rossamund was not surprised. Indeed, he was glad for Verline and the masters' sakes, and for the littlest children too, that his old foe had run off.
There came a heavy hammering at the door of his cell. A discouragingly serious voice bellowed, "Douse lanterns!"
Rossamund scrambled to unfold the blankets and pillow supplied, and wrestled them over the unsavory-looking mattress.
His bright-limn still glowing, the hammering soon came again. "You don't want to start your career with us like this, son. Get your lantern out and get to bed!" That voice held promise of all manner of things terrible, unguessable.
Quickly turning the bright-limn over, so that its light would dim and gradually expire, Rossamund completed making his bed in the faint twilight of its dying glow, undressing in pitch blackness. Finally, as he lay, restlessly shifting, with many creakings and groans of the metal frame, against all the uncomfortable lumps of the mattress, his fading thoughts swam. They dwelt for a moment on Verline, and her worries, but it was Master Fransitart, his failing health and his intended visit that troubled him most. Rossamund did not know how to feel about his old dormitory master now. He wished the old vinegaroon would just stay in Boschenberg and leave him to his new path. With a flash of guilt it occurred to Rossamund that Fransitart might not survive the journey; though he was already regretting the intended visit, he would hate any harm to come to his old dormitory master even more.
In the orbit of his sleepy musings, he wondered too if Europe, the duchess lahzar, would indeed return as she had said and ask him once more to be her factotum. Worry for poor Freckle stirred him for a moment, and this became concern for where Fouracres might be that night. So spun his tired thoughts.
As sleep slowly overtook him, he marveled that, through the many twists of what should have been a straightforward journey, he had managed to bumble, still intact, still healthy, to his destination. At last, for better or for worse, he was where he was originally destined, to finally become a lamplighter.
Tomorrow he would wake to the beginning of a whole new life.