The dwarf gulped, and wondered what his sleep-deprived, caffeine-craving mind had got him into this time.
He had said something meaningless and soothing like "There, there, I'll sort it out" . . . But although it had occurred to him that he might be taking on some minorly difficult task . . . like slaughtering a couple of hundred men before breakfast, or draining the Senaputt marshes to look for a lost earring . . . he now had a feeling that he'd just committed himself to the impossible. But he still didn't let go of her. "Now, lass. Dry your tears. They're spoiling your lovely face. I don't want someone thinking I've offended you by being too En avon with you. Then let's go and talk to the tall lad. Mud-folk are used to treating head-problems. We'll find a cure for your father."
She believed in him. It was a heavy weight to bear. She kissed his leathery cheek, making Korg decide it was probably worth bearing. "Oh, Korg! You're so . . . so big. So kind. I mean . . . you make other people seem so sort of . . . pale and feeble." She sniffed, and then blew her fine-boned aquiline trumpet on his large handkerchief. Dried her eyes. Looked trustingly at him, and said, "Should we wait until Squigs comes to breakfast?"
"No," said Korg, cheerfully sacrificing Squigs' sleep. Then a cunning plot came to him. "Let's take him some coffee, though. I must admit I wouldn't mind some myself."
Squigs tasted the stuff in the cup again, cautiously. It was coffee, all right. Very strong coffee. It was just so thick he wondered whether Korg had forgotten to add liquid to it. He noticed that while Korg was drinking the stuff with apparent relish, even if you needed a spoon to get it out of the cup, Venus was having a different reaction to her first encounter with dwarf coffee. She was sitting on the end of Squigs' rumpled couch-bed holding her tongue between her thumb and forefinger and squinting desperately to try and see what had happened to it.
Korg sighed contentedly. "Ah, that's more like it! Better than this thin mud they call coffee hereabouts. At least there is one thing everyone on Zoar agrees about, tall 'un, and that's that there is nothing like a strong cup of dwarf coffee."
Squigs had to agree. There was certainly nothing quite like this, er . . .coffee . . . he wouldn't say there wasn't anything better than it, but there certainly was nothing like it! No wonder Korg was quite prepared to take on hell with a fire-bucket. Knowing you had to face another mug of this stuff every morning made for people who were either very brave, or ready do anything suicidal before coffee time.
With Korg watching him expectantly, Squigs sacrificed his arteries on the altar of friendship. "How'd you like it?" said the dwarf, when Squigs arrived at the inch-thick sediment at the bottom.
"Er it's, um, it's . . . it's . . . quite strong," he replied.
"Huh! You should try pygmy coffee," said Korg. "The stuff they drink stunts your growth. Now, are you properly awake, or do you need another cup?" Korg gestured at the battered cast-iron coffee-pot.
"I'm awake! I'm awake!" Another cup like that and he would have to prop his eyelids closed with match-sticks for the next two weeks when he wanted to sleep.
"And the great brain?" inquired Korg with suspicion-causing solicitude. "Did you explode all of it yesterday, or is it still under the weather from last night? Can we ask you for advice without the springs popping out of your ears?"
Squigs thought about it. "No. That coffee of yours must have frightened the hell out of all lesser toxins. Ask away. The boiler of the Great Steam-Powered Brain is full of dwarf coffee, and the pistons are racing. All I need now is a track."
"Hullo! What is this—a threesome? You know my Dad's very straight-laced about that sort of thing." Kate looked in from the doorway. Her nose twitched. "Aha! Coffee!"
She came across and sat down on the rush mat, next to the coffee-pot. She looked at the pot curiously. "This yours, Korg?"
He nodded. "Yah. Never go anywhere without it. Have some real dwarf coffee."
"Ta. I've heard there's nothing quite like it. So, what are you lot plotting?" she asked, as she poured herself a cup.
"My dad's had those fits most of last night. Korg thought Squigs might have some idea how to cure him." Venus gave a small sniff of misery.
Korg put a comforting arm around her. "Yeah. I thought, seeing as you people from Mud are mostly loony, um, which I don't think the baron is," he added hastily," you might have some idea of what we could do to help him?"
Squigs bit his lip. "Hell, Korg, I'm an alchemist. Not a neurophysiologist. I'd say he needs a doctor or a shrink."
"You're a fine one to talk about needing a shrink, bean-pole," snorted Kate.
"Tch! I mean a head-shrinker," said Squigs. "You know, a psychologist."
They plainly didn't. "That's one of those pygmy religions, isn't it?" said Korg, faint but pursuing.
Kate raised her eyes heavenward. "Look, she wants her dad cured, you tall twit. Not just his head to wear on her belt."
Squigs sighed helplessly. "It's just a name for doctors that deal with people with mental-health problems. I don't think I'll be able help, but let me get dressed and I'll come and see him." He had the satisfaction of seeing Kate take a big and unsuspecting gulp of her coffee as she stood up. It was nice to see that she wasn't all that tough after all.
"Morning, lad." The baron looked old, tired and grey this morning. His mustachios drooped. However, even in bed, in his elderly pajamas, he remained a gentleman. "What can I do for you?"
"You're not looking so well this morning, sir." Even the rabidly egalitarian Squigs had no difficulty addressing this man with respect. Aristocracy here was still genetic selection in action.
The baron managed a tired smile. "I feel about as seedy as the parrot on your shoulder. I don't think I had ten minutes sleep last night."
"The parrot on my shoulder?" Squigs craned his neck sideways. Nothing. With sudden urgency he asked, "Lady Venus, can you see a parrot on my shoulder?"
She shook her head. "No."
"But you can see it, Baron?" asked Squigs, intent.
The baron looked puzzled. "You never go anywhere without it. It's always perched on your head, or on your left shoulder. It's busy preening its tail-feathers right now."
Squigs reached up with the black hand across his body to his shoulder. Felt feathers, and received a savage peck on his thumb. "Yow!"
Venus looked at him, puzzled. "What happened?"
"The parrot bit him," said her father, with the beginnings of a smile.
Squigs took a deep breath. "Lady Venus. Your father's not sick or mad. He's really seeing things that you and I can't."
They both stared at him. "Thank goodness!" said the baron. "I was getting very tired of no one believing me. I was beginnin' to wonder whether I really was just insane." Then another thought struck him. "You mean you can't see the parrot pecking at his ear-lobe, m'dear?"
Venus shook her head. The baron gave a low chuckle. "Well, well. I don't suppose you can feel it either, except with that strange hand, son?" Squigs shook his head. "Ah!" said the Baron, satisfied. "It's a rough bird, that. I wondered why you never reacted to the things it does to you."
"I wonder," said Venus, biting her lower lip. "You know, I once asked the parrot just what was wrong with you, Dad. It said 'Ghost-toasties.' Do you think it was speaking the literal truth . . . again?"
Slowly Squigs nodded. "It doesn't have many words. It seems confined to insults and noises. But yes, I do think that it was trying to tell us something."
"Then why don't you ask it what we should do about my father's problem?
Squigs shrugged. "Worth trying. Only . . . please excuse the thing's language. It's not a polite bird."
"I'll get Korg. He's an expert on that sort of language. He might be able to work out what it's saying," said Venus excitedly.
The dwarf must have been hovering just outside because Venus reappeared a moment later, towing him by the arm. "Oh Korg! You were right! Squigs was just what we needed. We're going to try his parrot now."
"That bird's got a foul mouth, M'lady. Not fitting that you should listen to it," said the dwarf austerely.
Venus grinned. "Korg's such a prude, isn't he, Daddy? Is this the same man who said 'Voulez-vous couchez' to me? I'll pretend to block my ears. Anyway, that's why I wanted you here. From what I heard you say to those men yesterday, you're a master of bad language."
The dwarf looked embarrassed, and hung his head in shame. "Heat of the moment, M'lady. That's why combat's no place for ladies like you. The strain of it can make the occasional rough term slip off the tongue. I can't oh! seks ooh-er it. That means 'help', in Frog-tongue, Baron. Mind you, the first time I said that to a girl who was carrying some heavy parcels, she said it would be one hundred and fifty francs, and not now, because her husband was around."
He had the satisfaction of seeing Venus collapse into hoots of laughter. "Oh Korg! You do speak such wondrous French."
He bowed modestly. "I pride myself on it, M'lady Venus. All self-taught too. I've a gift for it. Now, Squigs, let's get this bird here, and get it over with. You tell it to mind its language, if it knows what's good for it."
Squigs gave the strangled "Awk" of summoning. The air chilled, and the spectral bird appeared. It raised one leg, and broke wind loudly. Then it cleared its throat in a very human fashion. "Awk. Shortarse fancies Beaky!"
The dwarf ground his teeth, and felt for his axe. "If I cut your arm off, Squigs, do you think I'll get the parrot with it?" he asked grimly.
"Calm down, Korg. The thing doesn't have a polite vocabulary," said the baron, amused at the sight of his daughter's confusion.
"It can call me anything it likes. Shorter than me, isn't it? But I don't like its references to a certain lady . . ." growled the dwarf.
"It could only have been talking about itself, Korg," said Squigs, keeping a straight face, with difficulty. "After all, no lady of your acquaintance could possibly be called 'Beaky,' could they?" Squigs looked calmly at Venus, who was touching her aquiline prow and biting her lip.
"Er . . . of course, I'd never describe her like . . ." said the dwarf, discomfited, and then, seeing the ground turn to quagmire around him, he hastily amended his statement, "Yes. I . . . I'm very fond of parrots. Especially blooming fried," he said and retreated into a corner, looking somewhat flustered.
"Polly . . . what is wrong with the baron?" asked Squigs of the moth-eaten ghost-bird.
"Awk. Sod all, you silly fool. Whee! Ghost-toasties."
"Er . . . why? Why are the ghost-toasties, um . . . pestering the baron."
"Awk? AWWWK! Totally cut! Get stoned! Your bloody ring-piece!" It pecked at the empty jewel-setting of the silver ring on Squigs' black hand. "Polly wants a piece of ectoplasm. Who's the pretty boy then? WeeeeEEEEE!" The parrot flew up, lifted its spectral tail over Korg, and with a loud screech, disappeared, the ghostly dropping still falling.
"I'm not surprised that blooming bird is an blasted ex-parrot," said Korg. "It'd be pushing up daisies if I could get hold of it."
The baron shook his leonine head. "It certainly is a rough bird. Tell me, what did you make of what it said? To me at least it said there was nothing wrong with me, just ghost-toasties, whatever they are."
"Ghost-toasties . . . hot spirits? Burnt wine . . . brandewyn. A lot of that sounds like it was talking about drink to me, to be honest," said Korg, warily. "Er . . . I've known some people to see grey elephants and miniature centipedes after too much . . . brandy. Do you . . . um, shake a lot?"
The baron smiled. "I'm a disgrace to the aristocracy. When I was questing down south as a young man I picked up yellow jaundice. I've never been able to drink much since, without feeling like death the next morning. The other lords think I'm a danger to their reputation. So, I'm sorry Korg, the only elephants I've ever seen have been a perfectly healthy pink, and the only centipede was just the ordinary six-foot kind." He paused, struck by a thought. "It has been worse after a glass or two of our host's brews. Do you think . . ."
"No," said Squigs. "Although some of his concoctions. . . ."
"Cider, rum and green tea," shuddered the dwarf.
"Huh! You should have tasted Litchi wine and akvavit with bovril!" the baron paled at the memory.
"Look, I agree that the drinks Mungo produces, like hot Kirshwasser mixed with single-malt whisky, could give anyone hallucinations, but I think this is something else," said Squigs. "You can still see my parrot, can't you?" The baron nodded. "So let's presume that whatever it is, is also a spirit creature."
"Like the preserved caterpillar in Mungo's Manguey cactus stuff?" said Korg.
The baron nodded. "Very like, except that there are two of them, and they're alive and very fast moving. Otherwise they are rather like that caterpillar, only as big as cats, and they also seem to be on fire."
Squigs slapped his forehead. "Ghost Toasties! What an ass I am. I'll bet they're flame elementals, from the sphere of Fire. The description fits perfectly! But what are they doing here? Zoar must be pretty close to their idea of hell."
"More to the point, why are they pestering my father?" Venus asked. "And what drives them off?"
"Er . . . well, no spirits are supposed to like cold iron. And of course flame elementals don't like water."
"Well, that explains why I can keep 'em off with a sword. And I suppose I could sleep in the bath," said the Baron, visibly cheered. "If only Vee would give up hanging those, um . . . things of hers above the bath. Trick she learned from her mother. We used to have seven bathrooms at Long Ash, but we've only been able to keep one functioning."
Venus sighed. "Look. At home there are a few suits of full armor. But you can't live like that."
"Yes," said Korg, visibly struck. "I mean, it would be dreadful to be attacked every time you had to go to the loo."
The baron was also much struck. "Right. And you know how it is with those blooming tin suits. It takes you the better part of an hour to get in or out of them, and no sooner are you into one, than you find that you've just got to go."
"All of this gets us away from why the flame-elementals are attacking the baron," said Squigs. "The first part of what the parrot said was all true. I mean Korg loves . . . parrots, I was being a fool, and there's nothing wrong with the baron, he's just being attacked by ghost-toasties. What about the rest? Does anyone make any sense out of it?"
Everyone shook there heads. "Oh well," the baron smiled, tiredly. "I'll just have a sleep in the bath. If anyone comes up with any ideas, I'd be grateful."
"What is it, Recise?" M'lord Strate looked up from the pile of bat-wing sections he'd been counting.
The panting imp bowed. "Master. Ortant sent me to say that he has just received word from the rusalka."
"Aha. What has she to report?"
The imp bowed low again, "Master, Ortant just sent me to find you. He will not allow us lesser imps to touch the message. I will run now and tell him where you are."
"Very well, Recise. Tell Ortant I shall be in my study in a few minutes."
He was sitting at his big desk, his taloned fingers steepled, waiting, when the short major-domo arrived and bowed. It came forward and handed him a small segment of parchment. "Fortunately they have not discovered her messenger-fish yet, M'lord."
Strate sat and read it carefully, yellow smoke occasionally curling up from his nostrils. "So, the mercenaries were a failure, too. But I like this idea of hers. After all, my Earth-associates have bungled badly. If they are killed . . . I can replace them easily enough. And away from his friends on Zoar, Harkness-Smythe will be easy meat. Good. Instruct her to proceed."
For all that he disliked him, Squigs had to admit that the Crum, the singlehanded destroyer of 99% of all the thousands of incredibly tough foes in what he was already calling "My great poacher war," was a gifted liar. He was talking to the audience at large, and Kate in specific. "Well, I hope that the tall back-room boy organizes our attack on Earth in the next week or two." You wouldn't have guessed that he knew perfectly well that they were leaving in less than four hours. "My father came from Earth, you know. He told me I was the heir to a kingdom. Well, I say a kingdom, but it's more like an empire really. When we've sorted out these poachers I think I should return to rule it . . . seeing as old Squigs says going to Earth is so easy. Still, I can't desert this brave quest half way. I mean, what would my future queen think of me if I did?"
Kate drank it all in, and gazed admiringly at the muscles he flexed for her benefit. "I knew it. The wise-woman said my true love would be tall and nobly-born. A man who would fall for me immediately, a fighter the men of Senaputt would fall before, or flee from. A man who would sacrifice himself for me."
"Who was your father then, Crum?" asked Squigs, trying to keep the irritation and skepticism out of his voice.
"King Rupert. I forget the kingdom's name at the moment. Oh yes, that was it, Rupert of Hentzau, king of Ruritania. Tell me, how is the country doing without its rightful ruler?"
Squigs shook his head gravely. He hadn't previously realized that lying was hereditary. "There are a lot of wicked villains there that need bringing to book. I think it needs you." To keep a straight face he looked at his hands, at the black hand where the middle finger was defiantly straightening. His eyes focused on the silver, rune-etched ring. On the empty socket, from which the stone must have been prized. Of course!
He stood up abruptly. "Excuse me. I must go and talk to someone. Er, Lady Venus, is your father still in the bath?"
She nodded, surprised by the sudden question. "Yes, I think so. The poor dear must be as wrinkled as an old prune by now." Squigs strode off as fast as his long legs could carry him.
Actually, he met the baron on his way back to his hut, clad only in a elderly monogrammed hand-towel, and a small silver-colored neck amulet. His sword he carried in the hand that wasn't holding up his skimpy towel. He was rather prune-wrinkled, and there was still water trickling down his salt and pepper bear-rug chest, but he looked considerably refreshed. "That idea of yours worked perfectly boy! Five hours of uninterrupted sleep, other than topping up the water every now and again. I feel five years younger." He looked at his wrinkled hands, "Even if I do look twenty years older."
"I've an idea about what the parrot might have meant, sir."
"Wonderful! Only let's go to my quarters. It's a tad chilly out here, and you never know when one of the ladies might come along and see me in my undressed state." He sighed. "We used to have these wonderful big bath-sheets when I was a child. But we used them in the '63 floods, to try to stop the water lifting the parquet in the ball-room." He sighed again. "It didn't work, and the bath-sheets were ruined too." They arrived at the rush-beehive he shared with his daughter. "Ah, here we are. Just a mo'." Squigs hovered tactfully until the Baron emerged clad in elderly corduroy knee-breeches with most of the ribbing rubbed off, and a clean linen shirt showing just a little fraying around the collar and some neat darns.
"Now, lad, why don't we sit here in the sunlight, and you can tell me about your idea? Only, I hope it doesn't cost any money." He grimaced. "That's one thing we Ashill's don't have much of any more."
"It may not be money. A jewel, perhaps."
The baron shook his head. "All sold long ago, I'm afraid."
Squigs sighed. "I was just thinking about what the parrot said. As I remember it said something about totally cut, getting stoned, and . . . er . . . your bloody ringpiece. And it also said 'who's a pretty boy.' That's what it said to the armorer, Huigi, too."
Baron Ashill looked at him dangerously. "Are you suggesting a relationship between me and that damned bloodsucker? Because if you are . . ."
"No!" said Squigs hastily. "I mean the armorer deals in cut off limbs. And one of those limbs had a ring on its finger. Missing a stone. The nearest words that that obscene parrot could find were 'ring-piece.' Squigs held up his black hand, showing the silver ring with its empty setting.
The Baron stared at it, and then shook his head yet again. "It sounds plausible, only I don't think there is even a decent piece of silver left at Long Ash, let alone with me. Certainly no cursed jewels. You must understand that these attacks started quite suddenly about five months ago. We haven't been in a position to buy such knick-knacks since my grandfather's time."
"The amulet around your neck?"
"Merely steel, I'm afraid. And not mine. I'm not actually supposed to show it to anyone, so I trust you won't mention it."
But Squigs was now like a terrier onto the scent of rats. "How long have you had it, sir?"
"It was passed onto me about seven months ago. Really, old chap, I wish you wouldn't ask me about it. It's a sacred trust. Hopefully the rightful owner will come and claim it soon." The Baron looked embarrassed.
"How will you know who he is?"
"We, ah, have certain recognition signals . . ."
Without knowing quite why he did it Squigs thrust out his right hand. A lesson from the department of funny handshakes followed.
The Baron looked startled. He had previously merely treated Squigs with a slightly distant affability. Now his tone was awed and respectful. "I'm sorry, oh Grand Schnittwurst. I had no idea you were part of the Modern and Disrespected order. Thank goodness, I can hand this damn thing over now. The courier only lived long enough to say you would be coming."
Squigs shook his head. "I think the hand might once have belonged to your Grand . . . Sliced Sausage. But I think you can safely open that amulet and see what is in it."
The baron took it off from around his neck and snapped open the little amulet case. Inside, on a velvet cushion lay a fiery-red, facetted jewel. Opalescent lines shifted and jangled within its infinite translucent depths. And two plainly visible things that looked rather like flaming baggy cat-sized caterpillars leapt out of nowhere, and even before the Baron could reach for his sword, had dived upon the jewel.
And disappeared into it.
Like a man in a dream Squigs took the red stone from the startled Baron's amulet. He put it into the empty socket of the silver ring, and watched the bent silver claws straighten, and then curl of their own volition around the stone. As they did this he found his own view of the world changing, to include shades he had not been previously aware of. He could also see the parrot cheerfully depositing a ghostly dropping on the baron's bald spot. He was, however, sure that the baron would now no longer be able to see the reprehensible bird. Or have to fight off the ghost-toasties who had traveled so far to find their home, and former master.
"It is a pity Leggilass isn't coming. Still, the baron more than makes up for him. You're sure he is completely cured?" Mungo asked, slightly wary.
"Absolutely," said Squigs. "He can't even see my parrot any more."
"Some people have all the blooming luck," said Korg. "Still let's face it, Leggilass is acting within the terms of his contract to refuse to go off-world, and he's a bit too thick for this sort of mission. At least we've managed to leave the girls behind." He snorted. "Boys night out! Taking the prisoners into town! I thought you were laying that one on a bit too thick and rare. I never thought they'd swallow that."
"Well, they wouldn't have if Vila hadn't stepped in. I reckon we owe her," said Mungo.
Squigs was deep in thought. He was going to need a good bit of US currency to shepherd this lot across Chicago. And he'd have to be on his toes to keep them out of trouble. But at least he had the mercenary captain's unqualified support. Firstly, there were the rest of the mercenaries who were staying on at Ziklevison's temple as hostages. The captain seemed loyal to his own. Secondly, there was the far more dire threat of not providing the second half of the antiviral agent that would suppress the Captain's insect-aphrodisiac scent. Squigs was sure that the man would co-operate with them—just for that.
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