Chapter Eight

Sayn Cerupeen, boy, but you need to learn to tell a story better,” is the first thing that Culnor says, when I finish. "There’s a horrible tentacle monster, and you spend all this mopey time talkng about how sad it was for those elves to meet you. Do you realize, Jaspar, that you are never the hero in your own stories? Your father would disapprove.”

I snort. “You and my father were the only heroes in any story I've ever known. Everybody else has just been... people.”

He laughs. “You think your father and I were some kind of heroes? Piffle! We wrote the stories, boy, think about it! Hardly going to say, ‘and right there, facing that dragon, I pissed myself in terror,’ am I?”

You pissed yourself?”

No!” he bellows. “Well, yes, lots of times, but alcohol was involved. My point is, spice it up some. None of that whiny stuff about deciding to let your partner die! You saved her! You killed the monster! Be the hero!”

It was luck,” I counter, slumping. “By all rights, she ought to be so much dust right now.”

Doesn’t matter,” he says. He looks me in the eye. “Do you think I look back on my years of adventures and remember all the times I got lucky? No! I remember the times I got filthy rich, had throngs of people adoring me, and diddled some princess!”

So you do remember the times you got lucky,” I snicker.

Not. All. Of. Them.”

I throw up my hands. “Okay, okay, you win. The elf-girl didn’t die, we fucked like bunnies, and there aren’t cephalopodic demons suddenly taking an interest in the affairs of those outside of their oceans.”

Better story,” he growls, but then sighs. “If only.”

Yeah.”

We sit and stare at nothing for a moment.

Did I mention that one of them attacked me on my way over here?”

He sits bolt upright. “What?

I tell him.

He lets out a low breath. “So that’s what happened to you. You’re lucky I was at the Club.”

He rises heavily, and for the first time I can see the years on him. His first few steps toward one of his massive bookshelves are tentative, as if they pain him. His back is as ramrod straight as ever, but it’s pride that keeps it that way, pride and stubbornness.

A minion,” he says, and hands me a tome.

It is thick, and seems to be bound in iron. I brace as the bigger man hands it to me; this thing must weigh twenty-five pounds. A hinge hangs open on one side, with a slot to accommodate the matching loop on the thing’s cover. I peer under it as I accept it from Culnor.

It takes a lock?”

This book and that scroll you found share certain subject matter,” he says. “This one’s a rough translation, instead of the real thing, but you can never be too careful with Those Below.”

I peer at the page. It’s an illustration of the thing that attacked me -- well, one of them; it’s been that kind of night -- rendered with careful detail and geometric precision. It’s written in Old Calish, which I don’t read, though I can make out a word here and there. “Demon”, it reads. “Weak”, “slave”.

Ieander,” I murmur. “If that thing was just a servant...”

Turn the page,” rumbles Culnor. I do so.

The next page shows an image of what look like armies clashing, except they aren’t human. They seem to be insectoid... the Crawling Ones? And on one side, each soldier has one of these minions covering its face. The other side doesn’t seem to be faring that well. Storm clouds are moving in from the winning side, and the picture just fades off into darkness there.

The Battle of Ix’Thn’kkul,” says Culnor. “Where the Crawling Ones fell.”

He takes the book back from me and locks it as he explains. “They were once not that dissimilar from ourselves: a powerful race that covered the globe, masters of all that they looked upon. But they did something -- no one knows what -- that raised the ire of Those Below. They were obliterated for it. A handful only was saved by their gods, spirited to the Crawling Lands to serve as what we now affectionately refer to as the Dukes of Hell. Those Dukes were the only survivors of Ix’Thn’kkul, when the last of the Crawling Ones fell to the armies of Those Below.”

And these minions... they controlled them?”

Yes. A spore barge -- a kind of giant, flying jellyfish -- would fly over, blow its sacs, and soon the place would be coated with little pods, each containing a minion. Thousands of them at once would burst out of their pods, and go affix themselves to the nearest sentient. But...” he pauses, brow creased. “The texts make it seem like they aren’t really intelligent, themselves. Just a channel for Those Below to exercise their will. There’s certainly nothing about mentalism.”

I snort. “Did lots of people walk away from encounters with them?”

You may be the first.”

Then you said it yourself: look at who was writing the stories. If they were this unstoppable force, then the only people who could put pen to paper and describe them would at best have seen them from afar. Don’t believe everything you read. Especially when it was written by the Dukes of Hell.”

He harrumphs in a scholarly way, mutters something about a distant relative, but gazes off into space. When he comes back, he says, “So... a field of a thousand of those things, just as you describe them...”

They’d wipe us off the map. One almost did me, and I’ve got God on my side.”

Yeeeessss...” he tugs at his moustaches, “about that. You said that God Revealed to you how to kill the minion... and Holvelak, too. But His other tricks didn’t work against Holvelak, at least, and you had a hell of a time with one tiny flying octopus.”

Both seemed to be mentalists. Holvelak talked to me about things that were only in my mind, that I hadn’t said aloud. Come to think of it, Fat Lonnie did, too.”

But if he was reading your mind, Holvelak also had plenty of time to see what you were planning to do with that sword of yours, and the pyrotoxin. Maybe...” he paused. “Maybe mentalism can’t read the words of God. But maybe Divine Revelation isn’t perfect, either. Maybe God can’t see every outcome, which is how He steered you straight into getting pummeled by Holvelak.”

Or maybe that was exactly His plan all along. I certainly seem to get my ass kicked often enough to suspect that maybe He prefers to lull His enemies into a false sense of security.” I sigh. “Look, I’m not claiming to be an expert or anything, but I am the one with the voices of angels in my head. And I’m telling you, trying to puzzle out the mysteries of the Divine Will... forget about it. I like your theory about mentalism, but every other time I’ve tried to figure out what’s what with Him, I just wind up making myself crazy. I mean, look at what I’m wearing -- thanks for the threads, but a good priest I am not. I think it’s what He wants for me... but maybe I’ve just given up the pleasures of the flesh for no good reason.”

I sigh again. “He’s mysterious, Culnor. It’s part of the schtick.”

Culnor claps me on the shoulder and laughs. “You’re right, boy -- it’s all certainly made you dreary, if not crazy. You need to unwind.” Then his eye gets that twinkle that I’ve come to dread, the one that spurred old Mernick Fellthorn on so many adventures and earned Culnor his long succession of wives. Anyone else would welcome it, but he’s too much like a second father to me for that look to mean anything but trouble.

You need the Lady of Mysteries,” he proclaims.

I groan in protest, but he’s already sprung to the table, scribbling something on a piece of paper. “For God’s sake, Culnor, really?” I ask. “Lousy or not, I’m a priest... and you want to hire me a prostitute?”

He drops his pen with a flourish, all smiles under his whiskers. He looks like a giant schoolboy, giddy, though he can’t help but take a moment to lecture me. “She’s not a prostitute, Jaspar. She’s need made flesh. She doesn’t leave you with a fuzzy feeling and an itch that starts three weeks later. She fills you up where you’re broken.”

He shakes his head. “Maybe she won’t even sleep with you. Don’t get me wrong, I hope that she sleeps with you; you’ll be much less grouchy. But when she comes for you, she’ll fix you, plain and simple. I assure you.”

The tone in his voice catches me, the way he promises it. Clearly he’s seen her himself, but he’s not just remembering lusty bouts between the sheets. He certainly doesn’t defend the honor of any of his wives that way. She’ll fix you.

My voice catches in my throat as I try to protest again.

Ashara,” he whispers into his hands, which are cupped around the piece of paper. “Ashara. Ashara.”

The paper flares up with an indigo flame, and is consumed. I stare after it, blinking.

That’s it?”

He keeps grinning. “It’s done, boy. Enjoy her.”

You just wrote something on a piece of paper, said her name three times, and that’s that?” I shake my head.

I didn’t just write anything. It had a lot of zeroes on it.”

I can’t help but laugh. “Great, so you bought me a high-class hooker for Frostmath. I’m still just getting you another cravat.”

You paid me one hell of a secret, boy. To know that Those Below are returning... I still owe you, by my reckoning.”

I pause. “You said...” I start, and lose my nerve for a second. There’s a lump in my throat when I rasp out, “You said something to Tanner about my father. About him not having to die like that... like it hadn’t already happened. And you’ve been reading my father’s books, the later stuff, the stuff that didn’t sell because nobody wanted to read it, even from Mernick Fellthorn. You’ve been mapping his voyages. What do you know, old man? That’s the secret I want in return.”

He gives me a look that lingers into the future that he sees for me, a future that his eyes tell me is full of pain. I almost prod him for a reply when he finally speaks. “Yes, of course it is. To be honest, I think it’s really yours anyway: love him though I still may, I’m not his son. And though I might undertake this journey out of that love,” he heaves another sigh, “I’m not the man I used to be. I might fail, where another would not.”

I move over to him, and put my hand on his shoulder. “Old age hath yet his honor and his toil. / Death closes all; but something ere the end, / Some work of noble note, may yet be done, / Not unbecoming men that strove with gods.”

Don’t quote Lord Aelfred at me, boy,” he chuckles, “I have to look at his smug face every other week at Lady Culnor’s soirees.” He seems mollified, though. “It’s a good poem.”

Because it tells the truth,” I offer. “Your days aren’t done. And I’d still be honored to have you at my side.”

All right, all right,” he says. “I’ve been flattered by better than you, but I appreciate it nonetheless. I’ve a tale to--”

The door bursts open. “M’lord,” pants Tanner, “come quick! It’s the Count.”

The lycanth is bristling fur and teeth and fury... and fear. He’s down on all fours; for short distances they can outrun horses, and it looks like Tanner has really had the spurs in him. His face is slightly distended, jaw enlarged with canines poking up over his lip from beneath. Patches of hair have sprouted from the backs of his hands, and no one would call those things at the end of his hands anything but claws.

Where?” Culnor snaps.

The Black Library,” pants his not-quite-a-manservant. “We thought it had the best wards.”

I start for the door, but before I get three steps, I hear a lever pulled, and an electric crackle splits the air. Lightning arcs to the ground in front of me, and splits, two near-vertical beams sweeping in a circular arc left and right in front of me. Where they pass, the library where I was just talking to Culnor vanishes, replaced by another, of a darker stripe. Here, all the books are chained to the bookshelves, and their covers are black, or the red of blood.

No... not all the blood coloring is coming from the books. My nose tells me that in my second instant in the Black Library. Even overpowering the ozone smell of Culnor’s thaumaturgy, the scent of blood is so strong I can taste it.

Mother of Mercy,” Culnor whispers.

The Count is hanging from the exposed rafters of the room, not moving. He is borne aloft by some kind of slimy cord wrapped around his arms and under his armpits. He is covered in blood, but it isn’t his own. His hair is lightly mussed, though it’s slicked to his head by the redness that coats his body. His eyes are open, but his face is calm, as if he didn’t even have time to register any surprise.

His head is screwed on backwards.

The murderer hasn’t gone far. Fat Lonnie is lying on the ground near the Count, blood smearing his hands and pooling around him. His abdomen is a gaping mess, and a ropy string of intestine trails from it, leading up to the rafters, and back down to the Count.

Culnor pulls out a handkerchief and covers his nose and mouth. Crouching next to Fat Lonnie, he lifts up one blood-covered hand. He peers for a long while at the wound, and then stands up slowly.

He pulled his own guts out and strung the Count up with them,” grimaces the big man.

But... look at the body,” I stammer. “He broke the Count’s neck, killed him clean. Why then do... that?” I make the sign of the star.

I’ll be God-damned if I know,” he sighs. He waves a weary hand at the dangling body. “Jaspar, could you...?”

I nod. Between me, Tanner, and Jorngnir, we lower the Count to the ground.

M’lord,” Tanner whispers, eyes wet. “Can ye... or is it...?”

Culnor’s voice catches in his throat. “I... no, Tanner. Even the Church couldn’t do more than send his soul on its way to the Core.”

He starts to rise to his feet. “All this blood... I’ve got to get--”

No,” Culnor orders. “Stay. Let’s pay him some respect.”

I murmur a prayer, and then we stand in silence for a while. The darkness of this room is oppressive, stifling, but at least it means we can’t see the blood, and you can just about ignore the intestines hanging from the ceiling if you don’t look too closely. As my brain unclenches, I start to hear little noises from all around, tiny shuffles, almost as if the books are fidgeting. My companions don’t seem bothered by it, so I try to ignore the shudder that creeps up and down my spine.

What is this place, Culnor?” I ask.

The Black Library,” he rumbles. “Where all the worst things I’ve found in my years have come to be buried. That scenograph you gave me will end up here, once I recalculate the warding diagrams.”

And you brought Fat Lonnie here because you thought They wouldn’t be able to get to him here.”

At the time, I didn’t know what it was I was dealing with. If it were just a skinwalker that had been in him, we’d have had it out of there in no time. Nothing can transubstantiate or engage in mental projection, not in here.” He hangs his head. “Damn it, I didn’t know that it was Them.”

And now... there are only... three of you... who do...” When Fat Lonnie speaks, three battle-hardened men damn near jump into one another’s arms.

It’s... amazing... what these bodies will... do... if we push them.” The body just twitches a little bit, flopping an arm towards me. “So much red... all over... like an apple tree, in the fall... Do you all... scream... like that?”

Then he is still.

I don’t realize that I am moving when Culnor grabs my arm, jerking me to a halt. “Jaspar, no,” he warns. “It’s a trap.”

Get. Your. Hand. Off. Of. Me.”

To my surprise, he does. He even takes a step back, and throws up his own hands in mock self defense. “All right, boy, all right--but listen first. They know how to pull your strings, so you have to pull back.”

I’m a ball of clench-fisted energy. I’m ready to tear through the door and anybody who gets in my way. Like an apple tree... They killed the one who uttered those words. They aren’t going to get Corwinne.

But...

They know you’re going to go tearing out of here, straight to her. They’re playing you, Jaspar. They can’t control you, can’t read your mind, so They’re just grabbing you by the balls and pulling.”

I take a deep breath. “I’m listening.”

He shakes his head. “Your father was the one who was good at this kind of thing... always used to be the one pulling me back from the brink of charging into something stupid. So let me do it for his son. What do we know?” He pauses for a second to let me review, but not long enough to reply. “Those Below wiped out the last civilization to cover the globe, and then vanished for long enough to let us crawl out of the primordial ooze they left behind. There’s reason to believe that They are somehow involving themselves in a war effort that has been bleeding us dry... but until very recently, They haven’t made any overt efforts that anyone has lived long enough to tell about. You’re the first person who has encountered Them and walked away.”

When Those Below finally crushed the Crawling Ones, it wasn’t subtle. They haven’t yet shown that sort of force. No one outside of this room even really believes that they exist, except maybe a handful of elves. They need it to stay that way. They aren’t ready yet for the world to know that They’re coming. But there are those of us who do. So what’s the first thing they do?”

Separate us,” I grit. “Pick the Count off, because who knows, maybe he put two and two together after spending time with Lonnie. Do it in a way that makes Tanner want to get out of here: blood and viscera clogging his nostrils, that’s got to be switching on every fight or flight instinct that a lycanth has got. Then pick me off, by threatening... Ieander, I really am protective of her, aren’t I?”

Boy, you might just yet live to be your father’s son.”

Not if they kill me when I go after her.”

Borhafir’s bloated beard, did you not just hear what you yourself just said? They want you to do that. They’ve seen how you are with her. They’ll see you coming a mile off.”

I shake my head, mind tingling with a divine touch. “No. They’re not going to see me coming at all.”

But I’m going to need a few more zeroes. This time in cash.”

Chapter 8 Excerpts

In the below, Lord Culnor gets on Jaspar's case about being too down on himself:

“Sayn Cerupeen, boy, but you need to learn to tell a story better,” is the first thing that Culnor says, when I finish.  "There’s a horrible tentacle monster, and you spend all this mopey time talkng about how sad it was for those elves to meet you.  Do you realize, Jaspar, that you are never the hero in your own stories?  Your father would disapprove.”

I snort.  “You and my father were the only heroes in any story I've ever known.  Everybody else has just been... people.”

He laughs.  “You think your father and I were some kind of heroes?  Piffle!  We wrote the stories, boy, think about it!  Hardly going to say, ‘and right there, facing that dragon, I pissed myself in terror,’ am I?”

“You pissed yourself?”

“No!” he bellows.  “Well, yes, lots of times, but alcohol was involved.  My point is, spice it up some.  None of that whiny stuff about deciding to let your partner die!  You saved her!  You killed the monster!  Be the hero!”

“It was luck,” I counter, slumping.  “By all rights, she ought to be so much dust right now.”

“Doesn’t matter,” he says.  He looks me in the eye.  “Do you think I look back on my years of adventures and remember all the times I got lucky?  No!  I remember the times I got filthy rich, had throngs of people adoring me, and diddled some princess!”

“So you do remember the times you got lucky,” I snicker.

“Not. All. Of. Them.”

Later, Culnor sets Jaspar up for a meeting that will change his life:

Culnor claps me on the shoulder and laughs.  “You’re right, boy -- it’s all certainly made you dreary, if not crazy.  You need to unwind.”  Then his eye gets that twinkle that I’ve come to dread, the one that spurred old Mernick Fellthorn on so many adventures and earned Culnor his long succession of wives.  Anyone else would welcome it, but he’s too much like a second father to me for that look to mean anything but trouble.

“You need the Lady of Mysteries,” he proclaims.

I groan in protest, but he’s already at the table, scribbling something on a piece of paper.  “For God’s sake, Culnor, really?” I ask.  “Lousy or not, I’m a priest... and you want to hire me a prostitute?”

He drops his pen with a flourish, all smiles under his whiskers.  He looks like a giant schoolboy, giddy, though he can’t help but take a moment to lecture me.  “She’s not a prostitute, Jaspar.  She’s need made flesh.  She doesn’t leave you with a fuzzy feeling and an itch that starts three weeks later.  She fills you up where you’re broken.”

He shakes his head.  “Maybe she won’t even sleep with you.  Don’t get me wrong, I hope that she sleeps with you; you’ll be much less grouchy.  But when she comes for you, she’ll fix you, plain and simple.  I assure you.”

The tone in his voice catches me, the way he promises it.  Clearly he’s seen her himself, but he’s not just remembering lusty bouts between the sheets.  He certainly doesn’t defend any of his wives that way.  She’ll fix you.

My voice catches in my throat as I try to protest again.

“Ashara,” he whispers into his hands, which are cupped around the piece of paper.  “Ashara.  Ashara.”

The paper flares up with an indigo flame, and is consumed.  I stare after it, blinking.

“That’s it?”

He keeps grinning.  “It’s done, boy.  Enjoy her.”

“You just wrote something on a piece of paper, said her name three times, and that’s that?”  I shake my head.

“I didn’t just write anything.  It had a lot of zeroes on it.”

I can’t help but laugh.  “Great, so you bought me a high-class hooker for Frostmath.  I’m still just getting you another cravat.”

Chapter Six

The bath brings me closer to God than anything today yet has, and that definitely includes doing His will.

The Geinodes Club is a place of learning, and of money. The intersection of these two forces birthed a labrynthine tangle of rooms of all sizes, sealed beneath the earth like an emperor’s catacomb--fitting, considering the place was carved out of an ancient sewer system. The rooms range from closet-sized to cavernous, and each one is a library. Books line every available vertical surface, excepting the seventh walls, which instead display maps of every corner of the globe. Most of the libraries are open to any member, with long study tables and comfortable, high-backed leather chairs. They smell of pipe-smoke and old paper.

The hallways connecting one room to the next are lined with lacquered cherry bookshelves, each one bearing an inscription or small brass plate denoting the patron to whom it belongs. I’ve got a few of them squirreled about the place, in fact, mostly filled with musty spellbooks I’ve sworn to master, just as soon as I have a year or two not occupied by the charitable donation of puncture wounds.

If a single patron owns every shelf in the room, however, he is allowed to declare it a private collection, and admit only those he wills. I’ve not bothered to purchase the secret of how the shelves are allocated, so I’ve no idea how one would go about obtaining a library all his own, but I know there are internecine wars of almost bladed hostility in order to secure prime spots or junctions. Lord Culnor is undoubtedly one of the most brilliant of the Club’s tacticians, because he owns not fewer than twenty private libraries, including a suite of ten that are all found right next to one another. It’s called the Thaumaturge’s Wing, and it’s where I’m having the finest bath of my life.

The tub is a septagonal construct of brass and copper, decorated with pinpricks that form intricate swirls of ivy and fey creatures. When Tanner led me into the library--the books here are all protected from the steam by thick plates of glass across the shelves--he went first to an orb embedded on the top of the tub, next to the set of stairs leading into the thing. He’s not a big man, and he had to reach to shoulder height in order to run his hand over it. As he waved his hairy paw across its surface, a mist inside the orb swirled to life, and a warm red-orange glow began to emanate from beneath the basin. The same color of light spilled out from the many pinpricks in the side of the tub, turning the leafy pattern into a fall-colored panorama of yellows, oranges, and reds.

“How hot d’ye want it, lad?” he’d asked, bowler hat cocked quizzically.

“Hot,” I answered. “I’ve got a lot of bug to scrape off of me.”

He spun the color up to more of a red, and then walked along a six-inch-wide copper pipe that disappeared into the wall. He pulled down on an enormous, leather-wrapped wooden lever sticking out from between volumes thirty-nine and forty of Edrammij’s Concise History of the Glorious Tyrenian Empire, which set a cascading series of brass gears to turning along the surface of the wall, beneath the bottom of the bookshelf. They terminated with a valve attached to the copper pipe, with teeth that fitted neatly into the last of the gears. As it squeaked open, a roar of gushing water nearly as loud as the gyro-rotors on the Falkoj poured from the tub as it began to fill. I had peeked over the edge, and seen the water rushing in with enough speed to knock over a rhinoceros.

Tanner had grinned, showing slightly-pointed canines, and waggled his bushy red eyebrows. “M’lord’s got a whole ‘nother library through there,” he shouted over the noise, “just so he could have enough room to put his Water Pumping And Heating Engine!”

Now, all is blissfully silent, but for the occasional trill of droplets as I lift an arm out to snag a grape, or one of those little pastries with the mint leaf and smear of melted chocolate on top. The water is scented of lavender, and it has done an admirable job of rinsing the soot and grime from me. Some kind of built-in filtration system has shunted the dirty water away and replaced it with new, and has kept the temperature to near-scalding. My ruddy skin tempts me to use the control orb to lower it just slightly, but the mostly-empty bottle of wine that had been full of a smooth, spicy red when Tanner brought with my dinner isn’t making me want to rush into anything.

Well, God, this is an unexpected little delight. I guess I’ll keep serving You a little longer, after all.

God and I share a little laugh at this jest. He hadn’t bothered to ask my permission to start me down this road; I sincerely doubt I get to just tell Him to bugger off when I’m tired of it. Right now, though, He’s taking good care of His servant.

Sure, I’ve got a care or two. The thing with Corwinne still tastes sour, for one. And there’s the matter of Fat Lonnie. And I owe Culnor a secret.

But mostly, right now, my main care is whether or not I should ask for a second bottle of this stuff.

Tanner comes back in, bringing an exotic smell of smoke and honey with him. “Hookah?” he asks, and then catches my slow smile. “I’ll take that as a yes, then.”

He busies himself for a bit attaching the metal pot to several nozzles in the tub, and then hands me the pipe end. “M’lord likes a bit of pipe in the bath every now and again, so he added a proper circulator and heating element to the bath. Just ring if you need anything else.”

I take a tentative puff. The honeyed scent fills my mouth and nostrils, and I feel a tickle at the base of my skull as it starts to work. This isn’t really my sort of thing, more as a practical matter than anything else: when you spend as much time getting attacked as I do, keeping your wits about you is strongly advised. I tell Tanner as much.

He laughs. “I’m doubtin’ you’ll face too many who’re trying to punch holes in ye here, Fellthorn. M’lord, maybe, if he doesn’t like your tale, but he’ll not be letting anybody else do his dirty work for him.”

My brow wrinkles. “Yes... he seemed a bit tense. Want to tell me what’s been going on? I’ve only been gone a few months.”

He shows me his teeth again. “I could... how’s a fifty quidder for that?”

I snort smoke and roll my eyes. “You’re full of shit, lycanth. Ten, and I’m only offering that because I’ve been drinking your lord’s wine.”

“Now lad,” he begins again, eyes full of hurt, “ye mean to suggest that I’d not play you fair? I am wounded, I swear by me mum. Do I need to call old Shelnoc in here to adjudicate?”

“Leave the Historian out of this. Your kind, play fair? Pull the other one.”

He prickles, and I fancy I can see hackles rise. “Didn’t think ye had such a problem with lycanths, church man.”

I wave him away and put on a reedy, high-pitched voice to match his accent. “I meant Eirans, ye vicious little leprechaun. ‘Tis known t’all that ye’r descended from the Fair Ones. Stolen away any babies lately?”

He guffaws. “Only from the church, lad, and only because I was right starvin’.” He meets my gray eyes with his yellow. “Fifteen.”

“Done. How’s this: though the Count will swear up and down that he’s not had a draught of the red stuff since before you were a little green twinkle in your old man’s eye, it happens that there’s a certain whore he visits upon once per year on a night of great personal significance to him. She lets him have a pint or so, then sends him on his way.”

I can tell by the twinkle in his own eye I’ve struck gold. “A she? Now, that is an interestin’ little tidbit. Not his usual sort. What’s the name of the lady?”

“Fiver.”

He doesn’t blink. “Done.”

“Ulina Maefoun.”

He frowns. “Sounds Frankish.”

“Bayounian, actually.” I grin, waiting for the next question.

“Where does she haunt?”

“Five more.”

“Curse ye, I’ll find that one myself for yer prices.” He nearly spits and then just glares. “And ye had the nerve to suggest that I might not play ye fair.”

“Ten for the rest.” I show my own teeth. “The date... and why. You know you want it.”

“Fine! And fie on yer whole church, too.”

“Eleventh day of Midwinter. Often as not one of the coldest days of the year. Sun’s low in the sky when you can see it at all... even the whores aren’t out wandering the streets much. Nights are long, the kind of long not everybody makes it through. Especially not little old men with debts to the Captains, in this case. Debts that the Captains didn’t know he’d used to set up a little insurance policy against ‘accidental’ death...”

“His death-day!” Tanner exclaims, gleefully. “Oh, lad. Ye’ve made a happy man out of me. Man keeps his secrets tighter than a nun’s knickers, but I’ll have the whole place festooned in black ribbons and balloonery, just you wait!” He rubs his hands together, even; I didn’t know people really did that. “Aye,” he nods. “I’m a happy man. Even owing you fifteen quid ‘o secret tales to tell.”

“And a tale about your lord,” I remind him. “How about it?” I settle down into the water as Tanner shakes his head.

“He’s been in a foul mood, yer not wrong about that. For months now, it’s gone on. I thought at first it was the latest Lady Culnor, but the Count, he sussed it out straightaway.” Tanner adds a lisp to his lilt. “ ‘Dead things, young son, you mark my words.’ That’s what he said. Told me he could smell it on m’lord. I didn’t smell nothing funny, and I said as much, but if that little fairy wasn’t right all along I’ll shave my back.”

“This story is depressing. Less about back hair, wolf-man.”

“I braid it,” he grins, teeth bared. Before I have time to object, or throw up in the back of my mouth, he carries on. “It’s yer old man.”

Suddenly, the water is too hot, I’m too full of sweets, and my head is too fuzzy for the room. “Damn it.”

We both make the sign of the star, reflexively.

I sigh, and put the hookah down. “I think I knew that already, but thanks for the confirmation.” I shake my head. “But why would that get old Culnor all depressed? He and my father were old adventuring buddies. ‘Get out, see the world, meet new and interesting people, kill them, and take their things!’ I’ve got a place down by the docks where I keep the junk of the poor saps who greeted dear old dad and the Thaumaturge when they stepped down off the airship. Boxes of it. Culnor got rich, and dad got...” I sigh again. “... obsessed.”

Tanner nods. “Yer pa, he was an intense one, at least by the time I came on the scene. Scary, sometimes. But that’s just the thing. M’lord’s found something. Something about all those trips Mernick made, even after m’lord stopped going with him.”

I wince. “I remember those days. Your boss was none too popular in the Fellthorn home. My dad always said it was his wife--the first one--who finally caught him by the-- well, you can imagine. Dad didn’t like it.”

Tanner shrugs apologetically. “M’lord had a few choice names of his own for yer pa. It wasn’t a happy time. Two old bears shouldn’t feud like that.” His face contracts shrewdly. “I think m’lord thinks so, too, now. He thinks he never should have left yer pa to go it alone.”

“Why? Does he need more money to pay off wife six?”

“Fer love of yer old man, boy,” spits Tanner. “He feels guilty. I’ve heard him say so. Says no one should have to die like that.”

I share in Culnor’s feelings for a moment, and then something Tanner said catches in my mind. “Wait--don’t you mean, ‘should have had to die like that?’ ”

“Ye should know better than to question an Eiran on the wagging of our tongues, lad. We’ve the gift of truth-telling, don’t you know?”

I shoot to my feet. Since I’d been crouched up on an interior stair at the tub’s edge, all of a sudden a lot more of me is getting gooseflesh than I’m used to.

“I... I’ve got to... pants,” I finish, more decisively than I started. “Pants, please.”

Tanner’s grin is all canines. “Still think it wasn’t worth fifty quid?” He chuckles. “How about a towel, first?”

I take the proffered cloth and tie it around my waist, and then attempt to make a graceful exit from the tub. There’s not really any way to do it without exposing Tanner to the sign of the star all over again, but after another long grin--a different sort of grin than his partner would be giving me, I realize, and thank God for small favors--he turns and busies himself at a table by the door. I scramble out of the tub and start for the hallway--then stop, as Tanner holds up something on a coat hanger.

“Er... a leather jacket?”

“Not pants, I realize,” he offers, “nor the proper regalia of a priest, but the Count was sewing up a fit, and you’ll insult us if you don’t at least try it on.”

There’s more than a jacket; there’s a red silk undershirt with a high, banded collar like the one I’m used to. My sash has been cleaned, which as far as I’m concerned is another act of God, considering what had been on it not an hour before. I balk for a second at the long skirt that he hands me next, but he does finally hand over a set of matching black pants with it, and points out that the skirt has been done up in the style of a cassock, but has slits all the way up either leg.

“Hell of a lot better in a fight than that dress you usually wear,” he says, and I’m hard-pressed to disagree once I’ve got it all on. Plus, I note in the mirror as I button the black leather jacket up and push my middle and ring finger through the loops on the ends of the sleeve that keep a diamond-shaped strip of leather tight against the back of my hand, I look awesome. If any a priest were ever going to kick someone’s ass, it would be this guy.

“Boots, leather jacket, collar... I’ll forgive you the skirt,” I say. “You guys did good.”

Tanner just grins.

“Now,” I grit my teeth, “let’s find that boss of yours. I suspect he’s got good reason to feel guilty.”

I’m all fired up to confront Culnor, but like most of my plans, this one doesn't bear much resemblance to what actually happens.

Tanner drops me off at yet another library of Culnor's, this one filled with books whose titles were eerily familiar. The Quest for Rix'th V'asha had been a favorite of mine as a kid, back when I still wanted to be just like its author and protagonist. Culnor looked pretty dashing in it, too, as I recalled, but when I was eight, I had eyes only for the real hero of the book. It looked like whoever had assembled this library had been channeling my eight-year-old self.

We'd had one nearly identical in my house, growing up, albeit much less ornate. "Ornate" wasn't a word used in conjunction with the Fellthorn home, unless heavily prefaced with words like "almost" or "unpretentiously" (my personal favorite). Dad's idea of an investment had been new engines for the Kailee. Why buy a nicer library--or a nicer house in a good neighborhood--when he wasn't going to actually be in it for any longer than it took to refit his airship? He never let the place get run-down--that would hardly be proper--but I can't say I'd have minded living in a part of town where I didn't get beaten up once a week by the other kids on our block for not quite living up to my father's appetite for fisticuffs. I preferred my adventures to come in book form. Some people just aren't cut out to be heroes.

Caught up in reverie, the steam I've built up to let Culnor have it evaporates. Before I know it, there's a glass of whiskey in my hand--from the husky smell, a glass of a vintage a good sight pricier than any I'll be permitted to approach any time soon without a respectfully averted gaze, and possibly making the sign of the Star. One whiff and my buzz from earlier is back in force: a long, easygoing high that uncurls my toes and makes me sigh despite myself.

Culnor clinks my glass. "To adventures," he cheers.

"Adventures," I echo. "A nice way of saying 'good times involving buckets of blood, lots of it your own'."

"Little stomach for the war front? Prefer to do your bloodletting back here in Noldon?" A savage grin. "I hear you're winning your little contest with Darkleaf."

I groan. "Not my contest. You should know me better."

"Don't be so bashful, boy; I do know you, and your judgment. Are you telling me they weren't righteous kills?"

The hairs on the back of my neck stand up as I feel its tip scrape the inside of his skull. Warmth gushes down over my hands...

I look down at my drink for a moment, and then drain it in one go. "That's not what I said." Truth, but...

Culnor perhaps catches my mood, or perhaps is simply impatient. "Nothing's black and white in war, m'boy. And you've the fresh memories to prove it, don't you? Three months ago, you promised me a secret. I assume you're here to honor that promise?"

I reach into my sash, and draw out the scenograph. It depicts an eerily-crisp image: Corwinne, her thick leather gloves tarnished by spatters of a dark liquid, holding up a scroll as wide as a man’s forearm is long. The parchment is thick, and the scroll is wrapped around a pair of human femurs. She’s showing it to the lens, and the strange script seems to writhe and twist when at the corner of your eye, as if it were loath to be contained in such a way. The original text hadn’t been so fussy, but words like these have a mind of their own, and a scenograph is no way to treat them. I hand it over without looking at it. Culnor smiles.

“Ahh, a classic. Your father always preferred these to photograms, and I have to agree: you can’t beat them for detail.” He doodles the paperlike sheet of silver with his fingers, and I know he is manipulating the image, zooming in and looking at it from all sides. Scenographs capture not only the image in front of the lens, but all around the device, to a radius of maybe five or six yards. You can see the front and back of objects, observe tiny details, look at nearly anything you want. You just can’t see the camera, its operator, or anything in the distance. Corwinne could explain why--something about thaumic resonance, no doubt--but she’s more studious about this sort of thing than I am. If it has a lever, I’m useless; give me a musty tome and I’ll work a spell that’ll peel the paint off the walls. This scroll, though...

Culnor’s eyes twinkle. “You’ve done a stellar job capturing the scene--the focus is perfect--and Miss Corwinne looks simply ravishing, unfurling the scroll with an archivist’s care. Did you know that your ladyfriend wasn’t wearing any underwear?”

“How can you... you dirty old sod, give me that!” I make a lunge for my partner’s decency, but Culnor is way ahead of me.

“Now, now, I think I’ve earned this graph, as well as the tale behind it.” His grin pulls his drooping mustaches wide apart.

“Curious choice of words. You’re the second who I've found lusting after it tonight.”

“Perhaps you should say the third. She’s a lovely creature.” He cuts off my protest with a wave of his hand. “I’ve heard it all before, lad. Comrades-in-arms you may be, but you’re still allowed to be a man.” He sighs, manipulating the scenograph once again. “Marvellous quality, as I said. I do miss the color of a photogram, though.”

“The equipment’s a bit bulky,” I reply, trying to unfurrow my brows. “And besides, the scroll wasn’t in color, anyway.”

“You’d be amazed what you can tell from a little bit of color,” he chides. “If you can gauge the ambient light and the material, the yellowing gives you an idea of how old it is. The pigment of the script can tell you what it was written in. No, there’s a lot to be gleaned from a spot of color.”

“As for the pigment,” I say, “no mystery there. Brownish, even on the leather. I didn’t need the Count’s nose to tell me it was blood. I’d wager you the worth of the tale I’m about to tell that it was human, just like the skin it was scrawled on.”

“Then... not the Crawling Ones?” Lord Culnor’s face has lost all its good humor, and a good deal of its color.

“No. They’ve no use for skin; it means nothing to them. You need something meaningful to bind words like that.” I sigh. “But Those Below aren’t covered in insect chitin.”

We both make the sign of the star.

Culnor recovers his composure quickly. “As you say; I'll dispose of this graph properly, lest we find these words escaping it." He sighs. "Such a find, and on the war front. I imagine it was dearly-bought. If it’s what I think it is, it could cast doubt on who the real enemy out there has been all along. Can’t have made you very popular with the brass. Generals and commandants don’t care for shades of gray.”

I nod. “Yes, Leftenant Commander Holvelak had some starkly black-and-white views on topics ranging from elves to God to pyrotoxin. And he paid dearly for them.” I settle down in my chair, and raise my glass for Culnor to refill it.

“As for the war... that was in color.”