Even dumb jocks can have ambition

"We've a few tentative buyers coming into the tooth-market, M'lord. Apparently just Houses Minor who are wary about being caught short when the cold season comes. But I think there is a House Major behind it," Ortant reported, his slitty red eyes hooded in thought.

M'lord Strate tapped his claw thoughtfully on his long teeth. They made a sort of xylophone sound that Ortant found intensely irritating.

"Hmmm. You're probably right. Well, sell them their requirements, at a discount. We are apparently also trying to dispose of our holdings, remember. I have no doubt we'll buy them back and perhaps a few extra. But I need to buy time. It wouldn't do to let the way between the spheres become public knowledge. And that walking potential spanner-in-the-works is still on the loose. But we'll see how he responds to the rusalka's latest move."

It was a very merry party that wended its way home in the wee small hours. The singing probably wasn't the best ever heard in the great opera houses of Europe, but Squigs decided he preferred "Eskimo Nell" to "Den Rosenkavelier" anyway. He hadn't realized the deep and meaningful nature of the words of the former less-than-choral work before. Actually, to be honest, he hadn't even heard the words before. Anyway, most of the broken reeds would probably recover. Even the wildlife might come back some day.

When they were a mile or so off Mungo's floating home, the Draconnier, with difficulty, persuaded them all to be quiet. Or at least relatively so. The huts were in darkness. Mungo breathed a gusty sigh of relief. "Phew. I was sure that Kate would be sitting up for us. If I'd seen the lights on I'd surely have suggested we go back to town. After all we might as well be hung for a penny as a sheep."

"Is Penny the name of that new girl at Madame Pompadour's playsh? I shink you're better off with the sheep," said Crum with a gentle slur. He was more than a little drunk. After all, he had defeated the forces of evil singlehandedly. Or so he had told quite a lot of people that evening.

They all took their shoes off carefully and approached the huts cautiously. The front door swung idly open in the breeze. "That's funny," said Mungo. "I expected that we'd end up sleeping outside tonight. I smell a rat. Something is very fishy about it. I can't quite put my finger on it, but I see it as being all wrong somehow . . ."

Baron Ashill stalked over to his hut. "My door's open too. Vee? Are you there?" alarm tinged his voice.

"The hearth's cold. There's been no fire here this evening." Mungo bustled over to his daughter's room. Squigs found himself sobering rapidly, his victory turning to ashes in his sudden fear.

"Kate!" Mungo bellowed.

"Venus!" roared the Baron.

Korg and Squigs looked at each other with dawning horror, as the Crum tottered off to bed.

Every candle and lamp in the huts burned. They'd searched room by room until Korg had had a sudden idea. He'd gone to the boathouse with Mungo and they'd found that the largest coracle was no longer there. Now the Baron, Mungo, Squigs and Korg stood in the main room of the rush-huts, attempting to decide what to do next. They'd discovered that Vila and Leggilass were missing too, but were still none the wiser as to where they might have gone.

"There's no sign of a struggle," said Squigs. He'd been slowly coming to terms with the fact that his romantic illusions were so much crap. The woman of his dreams was not a delicate damsel to be sheltered from every inclement wind. It had been a shock when he realized that in a lot of ways Kate was rather like his Mum. Sister Thandi, in specific, and ward sisters, in general, deal with crises with a sort of negligent ease that makes disaster look manageable. Kate, despite her own romantic illusions, was as tough as old boot-leather. "And let's be fair, even Leggilass would have been easier to take somewhere against his will than those girls, if they hadn't wanted to go."

Mungo sighed. "If that blond beefcake wasn't snoring in the hut across the way, I'd have blamed him. Now . . . I just don't know what to think. Maybe they just thought they'd pay us out for leaving them by going out themselves?"

"I feel that something is terribly amiss," said the baron grimly. "Vee isn't much inclined toward practical jokes. I think we should search again, looking for any clues this time. Look for hints of foul play, anything."

It was Squigs who spotted the four used, but unwashed, coffee cups. It was Korg, sniffing like a terrier, who found Leggilass tied up and gagged behind an empty tea-chest in the pantry. In typical Korg-fashion, he dragged him out into the kitchen, and bellowed for the others, before cutting the prisoner's bonds.

The others arrived at a run, Squigs still bearing the four coffee cups, as Korg sliced Leggilass' bonds with his axe. That axe was sharper than most knives.

"You've cut me! And look at the marks these ropes have made on my beautiful legs!"

"What's happened! Where are the girls?" demanded four people.

Leggilass looked at his legs. Examined his fingernails. Squigs noted with surprise that these were painted red. At other times he might have paid it more attention. Now he was just one of the four people trying to pick Leggilass up by the shirt and demand to know where the girls were. No shirt was intended to survive that sort of treatment. It ripped, revealing that the large, ugly lump of male Homo sapiens was wearing a frilly teddy. With pink roses embroidered around the word "cuddlebunny." It was enough to make the four drop him at once. Leggilass modestly pulled his torn shirt across the amazing garment.

"She hit me over the head," he said. "And next thing I woke up in the pantry. I should have gone with you."

"Who hit you over the head?" demanded Squigs. He remembered how a blow with a billy-club had only made the Crum blink. How hard would you have hit someone like this bonehead, where the brain-cells were so far apart they had to communicate by post?

Leggilass looked down, revealing long eyelashes, incongruous with a homely battered face and broken nose. "Why, the Lady Venus of course."

Before you could say "knife," Korg was kneeling on Leggilass' chest, his powerful hands wrapped around the man's bull-neck, shaking and throttling at the same time. "What did you say or do to her? I'll tear you limb from limb, sharkshit!!"

"Now, Korg. You'll only kill him before we get any answers out of him," said the baron grimly. "Let him breathe. I'll tell you when you can start again."

Squigs looked at Mungo. So his suspicions had been correct. He was glad he hadn't been the one to have to tell them. He hadn't wanted to believe it could be her. She was so . . . nice. Trustable seeming. He supposed being nice and trustable was part of the stock-in-trade of a good agent.

"Honest," pleaded the unfortunate Leggilass, "I didn't do anything. She hit me from behind."

"My little Vee never hit anyone from behind in her life!" the Baron protested.

Squigs looked at his hands. Thought of the captive that Venus had supposedly found dead. She could kill an unconscious man . . . His eyes focused on the coffee cups still in his hand. He noticed that the inside of one was filmed with a whitish powder. He rubbed some off onto his finger, and smelt it cautiously. Aha. Now he knew how it was done. Lethe-dust in solution has virtually no smell. It was only dry that it gave off that characteristic burnt-caramel whiff. Venus had taken a chance. He'd never seen Vila touch anything that wasn't alcoholic since she'd joined them.

Suddenly it struck him. Four cups. Why bother to hit Leggilass over the head, if you could have dosed him with Lethe-dust? He looked carefully at the empty cups. Only two of them were filmed with the white of the sleeping-potion.

"Korg!" There was a sharpness in Squigs' voice, a tone of command that had never had never been there before. The dwarf actually looked up from his victim, startled.

"Get up."

The dwarf did.

"I'll deal with Leggilass," said Squigs. "He's lying, and you'll just kill him. I'll get answers. Go with Mungo and see if Kate or Vila or Venus have taken any of their gear."

Leggilass sat up. "I'm not lying," he mumbled resentfully.

Squigs held up the four mugs. "You drank coffee with them."

"Yeah, so what? It's not a crime," the sullen Leggilass admitted.

"Look here, Baron. Four cups. Two of them with enough Lethe-powder still in them to knock over an elephant in five minutes. Two cups with nothing more than a bit of sticky sugar in the bottom of them."

"My Vee doesn't take sugar," said the Baron quietly. "It's one of our little economies."

"And it wouldn't have been necessary to hit anyone over the head if you could give them Lethe-dust instead." Squigs pointed at the lump sitting on the floor in front of them. He was aware that Korg and Mungo had returned, and were standing silent, listening. "You helped to drug them. You then helped VILA carry them down to the boathouse and load them into the coracle. Then she brought you back and tied you up, leaving you with a cock-and-bull story to get us fighting among ourselves. She knew where we were going and at least roughly how long we'd be . . . because you had told her. I knew the spy was a woman. So I thought I was safe telling only the men!" The black hand flexed and suddenly Leggilass found himself dragged upward, by the nose. "Now, you're going to tell us exactly where she has taken them."

"Ow! You're hurtig be! I don't doe! LEGGO!" squalled Leggilass.

Squigs did, abruptly. The lump fell to the floor. "You better tell us everything you do know, if you don't want each of us to take turns in killing you slowly. And even then, I'm not sure if your confession'll be enough to save you. So make it good. Very, very good," said Squigs, in a voice that made blizzards seem warm and affable.

The lump sniveled. "'Snot fair! She said you'd never guess. She said in a few weeks she'd do . . ." he sniffed, "wot she promised."

Korg took out a small whetstone and began sharpening his axe-blade. It was already razor-sharp. "I don't care if she promised a three week holiday in Madame Pompadour's, dogbreath. Where are they now?!"

The lump sighed. "You're so clever, Korg. Now I suppose I'll never get my job at Madame Pompadour's?"

"Look, bugger the madame! Where are the girls?" Squigs shouted into Leggilass' unfortunate face.

Leggilass shook his head. "The madame's given up business herself. She wouldn't let you do that. But I'm sure one of the girls . . . like I thought I'd be . . ."

"WHERE!" They all bellowed at him.

"Vila took them to Sylvan." Then Leggilass burst into tears. "I didn't want to have them kidnapped." He sobbed. "I just wanted to be a girlie, like my dear, dear Papa really wanted."

"Don't worry," said Korg between his gritted teeth. "You're going to be. Shortly." He fingered his axe-blade.

Gradually they dug the tale out of Leggilass. It was, in a way, all Korg's fault. After all, he'd said what nice legs the lump had. By the sounds of it, it was the first even vaguely polite thing anyone had said to Leggilass for a long, long time. And slowly, brain-cell by brain-cell, an idea had taken root in the dumb jock's brain. His unhappiness, it seemed, stemmed from being a male with a girlie name. Maybe his father hadn't made the sort of mistake he thought. Perhaps he'd just wanted a frilly daughter.

At Vila's suggestion, after she'd been consulted on the subject of displaying his legs better, he'd gone into Madame Pompadour's. To buy some silk stockings. And once in there, they'd persuaded him to try various other outfits. Of course most of them had had to be substantially altered to fit his, er, fuller figure, which accounted for the package Squigs had fetched. But the girls, and Madame Pompadour, had so admired him and his taste, that he wished he could be female. Especially he wanted to be one of the girls there, who were so desirable that menpaid for their company.

He'd confessed his wishes to Vila, and she had promised that, in return for his help, she'd see that he became female, and more than that, got a position at Madame Pompadour's. His actual treacheries were small things, like telling her what happened when she wasn't around. "She was awfully nasty to me. She told me I was just stupid," he said, the terrible injustice of it still rankling within him. She'd used carrier fishes to send messages back and forth. She had also had some connection with Madame Pompadour, or so Leggilass firmly believed. He could give them no more details of where Vila had taken the girls, or why.

Mungo shook his head. "And there I thought we were so lucky to get an ex-Amazon."

The baron looked at him, puzzled. "But my dear chap, of course she couldn't have been an Amazon. If you'd told me that . . . I could have told you she was a fake straight away." He looked somewhat embarrassed. "You see, er, m'wife was one, and in order to draw a bow better and faster, Amazon Corps women remove their left breast."

The sky was definitely going to get pale soon. Yes, definitely. As soon as the sun was foolish enough to think of getting up. At the moment, however, it was still tucked safely in its night-bed, where Squigs was beginning to realize that he would dearly like to be. His hangover was developing nicely. The pre-dawn air was cold and cutting at Squigs' surviving ear. It seemed hard to believe that a few hours earlier they'd all been riding high on their triumph. Now they were off to beard a notorious Madame in her own den. Then they would have to go to and search the Sylvan sphere.

The more Squigs thought about it, the less he liked the idea. Zoar was the most earthlike of the other spheres or universes. There had always been some affinity and interchange between Earth and the "Water" sphere. At least many Zoar-folk were human. But "Air," or Sylvan, was far more alien. There had, over the centuries, been some contact with Earth. Many of the nastier mythological beasts had their true origin in Sylvan. Especially the ones that drank blood. There were apparently a few humans living there, but they were a minority. A tiny, preyed on, minority. Anyway, what had to be done had to be done. Kate needed help. So did Venus. There wasn't going to be a congruence within a hundred miles until eight in the morning of the following day, so he did have some time to prepare.

But Squigs knew that Mungo was right. As the huge man said, there was no point in not striking while the iron was still hot under their feet.

Dawn might only be coming in an hour or two, but at Madame Pompadour's place business was coming along nicely. Many of the clientele, or would-be clientele, were inebriated and fairly obnoxious. The six bouncers were tough, and they thought they were used to everything, and prepared for anything.

When Mungo Kentigern and his three companions, (one of whom was a dwarf dragging a thoroughly miserable Leggilass by the collar), turned up and demanded admission, they realized that they were less well prepared than they had thought.

These four were not inebriated . . . any more. They were in the next stage: The stage at which one feels a little fragile, when the hasty laying on of rough hands is unwelcome, and can be very unwise. Unfortunately, this was the normal reception for visitors to Madame Pompadour's House of Pleasure who announced that they had no intention of being paying customers, or of stepping this way for the scrutiny of their family jewels, in case they had a dread disease. Mungo was a local legend in his own time, and thus the head bouncer and his mate had decided to start with Baron Ashill. The Baron politely told them to get their hands off him. Now.

They laughed. The depths of stupidity people can achieve is amazing thought Korg, looking at the idiots! Korg was prepared to fight nearly anything. Given provocation he would have cheerfully challenged Mungo. After all, the big man was a fair fighter, and knew some limits. Korg had taken one look at the baron, even before he'd met Venus, and decided to step warily around him.

But, as the two bouncers admitted the next day, when bargaining with Huigi, everybody makes mistakes. They were just lucky to be alive and to have the chance of never making the same mistake again.

From this point on things had disintegrated fairly rapidly. The bouncers yelled for the waiters. Mungo defenestrated two of them. Through windows that certainly hadn't been there, before. Wooden walls are remarkably open to home-improvement.

Korg swatted Leggilass to make sure that he stayed in one place. Then he waded in too, delivering uppercuts, at a height appropriate for him to deliver, such blows, and then dealing with the doubled-over victims.

Squigs had spent his whole life being a person of the calculated actions of a weedy black kid in an unfriendly environment. He stayed cool in the face of affront and thought his way around it. Just then, however, something in him snapped abruptly. Someone had stolen Kate. He was going to find her. NOW. And these minions of theirs stood in his way . . .

The red haze around him dimmed to pink. That was definitely Korg's voice. Why was he, James 'nkosi Harkness-Smythe, natural-born coward, standing in a zone of total destruction with the remains of a chair in his hand?

"Squigs . . . Oy! Squigs. It's over. Stop fighting. Squigs, do you hear me?" the dwarf bellowed.

Squigs shook his head. "Yes?" he looked around at the chaos, blinked down at Korg, who was standing a safe five yards off. "What happened? Did I get hit on the head?"

The dwarf looked at him with a skewed smile. "You're asking us what happened? Zikleviesion on a crutch! Why the hell didn't you tell us you were a berserk? What the hell were you trying to do? Single-handed slum clearance?"

"I . . . I don't remember." Squigs shook his head again. Very little of the red velvet upholstered furniture would ever be good for anything other than firewood again. Several of the wooden walls were smashed too. Other than the dwarf, Mungo, and Baron Ashill, there wasn't another conscious soul visible. "We did all this?" he asked warily.

"You did all this, you loony. We got out of the way. You'd have done it to us too, if we hadn't had the brains to get outside!" said the dwarf with ghoulish pleasure.

"Er. I guess I got a bit carried away," said Squigs.

The baron shook his head, and smiled. "No, the ones who got carried away were the ones who couldn't run or crawl."

"And, bugger it, we had to carry them away. Their friends all ran off," said Mungo, chuckling.

Squigs looked embarrassed. "Look, to be honest with you guys, I, I just snapped. I'm, er, not normally much of a fighter."

Mungo strode up and put an arm around Squigs' shoulder. "Son, after tonight you're not going to find anyone in all of Zikadoonvarna who'll ever believe you. Or pick a fight with you, for that matter. I must admit I never guessed it myself, but you're a braw fighter, actually. Now, let's go and do what we came to do. I think Madame will have time to talk to us now, seeing that our boy Squigs has kind of reduced her customer through-put."

They found her hiding behind the chaise-lounge in her office, easily detected by her large purple and yellow-clad quivering derriere, which protruded above this structure's quilted surface by some inches. "Why," she demanded, once she had been prodded forth, "you are banging up my 'ouse? My girls they are not good enough for you?"

Korg hauled the semi-conscious Leggilass up onto the chaise-lounge. Ripped aside the remains of Leggilass' shirt, exposing the rosebudded teddy, with its artistic cutaways through which the lump's hairy nipples protruded.

"He talked, Madame," snarled the dwarf. "Now, we want Vila. Or I'll start Squigs up again. He's a gent, normally. Wouldn't hit a lady. But when he's that mad he can't tell the difference between people an' furniture, never mind the sexes."

The notorious dame drew herself up. With six-inch heels and the massive, slightly mismatched blond wig on her head, she stood nearly as tall as Mungo. She looked down at the dwarf. Twisted a red painted lip at him. "Nevair. I will not betray the cores."

Korg was one of those people whom you should never look down on. Even if he is shorter than you. Especially if you're wearing tottery high heels. The madame found herself lying on the chaise-lounge on top of the recumbent Leggilass. The dwarf had neatly converted her six-inch stiletto heels into far more healthy flat shoes—with his axe. "You'll betray the whole flipping apple if I tell you to," he growled. "Now sit up, you fallen woman. Get off Leggilass. You can ply your blooming trade on your own time, not on mine."

"I think," said Baron Ashill, taking her elbow, and helping the now seriously skew-wigged madame to sit up, "that Madame Pompadour may mean 'the cause,' not 'cores,' Korg. To which cause do you refer, Madame?"

Madame Pompadour shook herself free of his arm, and waved a plump fist defiantly. "The revolution! Vive la Revolution Sexuelle! Voe-ets for women, and an end to female suffrage!"

"Er, don't you mean 'an end to female bondage,' not 'an end to female suffrage'?" asked the Baron, his voice a touch less icy.

"But non. We are to bondage not at all opposed. Indeed, in this 'ouse I 'ave, 'ow you say, quite a lot of capital tied up in it. I am meaning an end to women 'aving to suffair, and not getting the voe-et."

"Ah. Well I'm a supporter of that myself, or at least my late wife was," said the baron. "But the person we are looking for is not a suffragette. She is merely a common criminal in league with these dastardly dragon poachers, and has also kidnapped both my daughter, Venus Ashill, and the daughter of my friend, Kentigern here."

"Venus Ashill? You are le Baron Ashill? The 'oosband of the great dame, Mrs Spank'erst Ashill?"

The baron nodded. "That was my Dot," he said sadly. "And, er, it's 'Pankhurst' not, um . . ."

"It is an 'oneur to 'ave you in my 'ouse!" She looked rather sadly out of her door to the ruins of her once-elegant red-plush salon. "Although I do not know why you could not just 'ave knocked me up like anybody else."

There was an embarrassed silence, until the dwarf, who stood at a height convenient to her ear, whispered something into it.

Madame nodded. "Eh bien. But I 'ave understanding of the most full what 'knock-up' means. Also what knockairs are. It is my profession, aftair all. But you are saying that the dautair of Mrs Spank'erst Ashill'as been kidnapped! That is infamie most gross!"

They gradually pieced the story together. Madame Pompadour's Maison de Plaisir had provided shelter to a reclusive girl, with pale skin, dark eyes, and young-vixen teeth. This nocturnal creature had handled the sending and receipt of Vila's messages. The girl had quietly left the evening before.

The madame had believed Vila to be an agent investigating a masculinist plot involving getting the vote for men. "It is an idee most ridicule. Everyone is knowing that men 'ave no minds above thee belts. Bettair that they get on with the ploweeng and fighteeng, and leave the thinkeeng to those 'oo can. A man's place is bare-butturked on 'is knees, getting someone pregnant in the field, not in a position of powair." She suddenly realized her audience was of the wrong sex, and hastened to try to make amends. "There are some men 'oo do rise above thee belts. M'sieur Le Baron for instance. 'is wife always said 'e had a woman's mind," she offered generously. "But what I 'ave no understanding of," continued Madame, "is that Vila and 'er friend Chloe, 'ave come with the credentials most excellent from the 'eadquarters of the revolution."

With a perfectly straight face Squigs said, "I'm afraid, Madame, that parts of your organization may have been penetrated."

Dawn, and indeed a yawning morning having arrived, they all adjourned to the Green Monkey, for the coffee that they all felt in desperate need of. Madame Pompadour, (You can call me Celestine) had joined them, as she felt that her place was in too much disarray to offer suitable refreshments. She dismissed Squigs' apologies with a graceful wave of her beringed hand. "Make nothing of it, M'sieur. Your friend the dwarf 'as explained, and I mus' make allowance for the passion of a young man in love, fearful about 'is girl. That is only naturelle. It was time I redecorated anyway. That red was, 'ow you say, too suggestif."

As the draconniers underpinned the economy of her enterprise, she was in no hurry to have it widely known that she had been harboring an agent of the poachers. She was more than willing to make amends. She'd brought a bottle of Marc over from her office, and the conversation over coffee became quite convivial. Mungo held forth his moral objection to Madame Pompadour's place. "Pardon my sayin' so, but I've no liking for all this control. I think we were much better off with a free market system."

The madame shook her head. The magnificent wig and bosom waggled in sympathy, if not in time. "But 'ow can a market be free? The fish-monger and the grocer, they will not give their produce away?"

"No. I just meant, well, more free enterprise. You know, girls working for themselves."

She shook her head again. "Non. Our co-operative effort, it 'as raised things to new 'ighs in the profession. I think you will find our girls will do more than just 'old their own against any competition." She shrugged, "You know, there are always othair girls 'oo are entairprising, some for free too. Although," she added, considering the matter, "there are usually 'idden costs."

The question of what to do with Leggilass was brought up, when it occurred to them that he had simply been left lying on the chaise-lounge in Madame Pompadour's office. "Why not give 'im what 'e wants, the poor dear," the madame said.

"Korg was quite keen on that. Then and there, with his axe. But it seemed a bit barbaric to me. After all, Vila simply used him," said Squigs.

"Non! C'est barbare. Send 'im to 'uigi. 'e can get a ver' good trade-in on what 'e 'as." She chuckled. "We all saw when 'e was modeling those outfits. The girls and me thought 'im very impressif, and we 'ave seen a fair numbair, believe me. 'E can get some Amazon knockairs cheap. So long as 'e matches thee size and shape well, no one will evair know 'e as two left tits." She shrugged. "Many of the customairs are too drunk to notice if a girl 'as three, nevair mind if they are both left facing."

"You're going to take him into your, er, business?" asked Mungo in some surprise.

"Butnaturellement! It was promised, and 'e was so 'appi at the idea. 'E is so sweet." Squigs stared at her, open mouthed. Leggilass? Sweet? Were they even talking about the same person?

The madam smiled at him. "You wait. 'E will make a lovely girl, when 'uigi is finished. And if I do not take 'im, my reputation, she is damage beyond repair. A girl in my profession she cannot be too careful about 'er reputation."

Slugger came in, and stared in some surprise at the crew sitting around the table, drinking coffee and Marc in more-or-less equal quantities.

"Mornin', Mungo. Mornin', Squigs. 'Ow's tricks wiv yer? Katie's goin' rip your bleedin' 'eds orf when you gets 'ome, orlright."

Mungo sighed. "That's why we're here Slugger, old friend. Kate's missing."

The day barman-waiter-cum-bouncer dropped the tray he was polishing. "WOT! Don't say she's run orf wiv that useless Crum. I'll bleedin' kill 'im!"

"No, she's been kidnapped. By Vila . . . remember, the blond with big bristols. Along with Baron Ashill's daughter."

Slugger stepped over to the bar, reached behind it, and produced a mace. A mace with a huge, heavy, spike-studded ball head. He whirled deftly. "Well. Wot are you sittin' there for? We'd better get goin'."

Mungo reached for the bottle. "Grab a glass. They've been taken to Sylvan."

"Makes no diffs where they've taken 'er. Like my own kid, that girl. I'll give that bleedin' Vila 'er satisfaction at last, when I catches 'er." He made a gesture with the mace that made Madame turn quite pale under her make-up.

"You're going to have to stand in line, old friend," said Mungo grimly. "But the boy says we can only get into Sylvan tomorrow. In the meanwhile we're getting drunk."

It is a curious experience to wake up with a pen in your hand. Squigs couldn't remember if it had been there when he went to sleep. Possibly because he couldn't remember planning on going to sleep. "Passed-out" was actually a more accurate description of what had happened. Or at least he hoped so. He must have been completely blotto if this bench had been his choice of bed. This business of being accepted by the boys was hell on the liver. He looked at the pen. It was recognizably his own biro.

On the other hand it wasn't going to be much use to him ever again. Having a pen and no paper within reach of the dead-drunk body attached to it, the hand had been obliged to write on the table.

Gouged into the table-top was the following message. FOR SYLVAN NEED GUIDE. PRETTY BOY. SAY "ARAMARA SENT ME." S . . . The pen had plainly died.

Squigs stared at the table for a long time, before getting up and going in search of the others. He had plainly fallen asleep at the back of the Green Monkey's saloon. The lunch-crowd were trickling in. Along with them came Korg. "Been lookin' for you," he said laconically. "Mungo's getting the wagon. We've going back to his place to pack-up for the trip."

"I need to go and see Huigi," said Squigs, shortly.

The dwarf looked sympathetic. "New head, or new liver?"

"Neither," Squigs shook his head cautiously, giving the lie to words. "Just, we need a guide, if half of what I've heard about Sylvan is true."

The dwarf snorted. "Huigi! Listen man, I'll not deny we could use a guide, but his help would cost you an arm and a leg." He looked sourly at Squigs. "And I mean an arm and a leg, and probably a few other bits too."

Squigs shook his head again, a little more definitely this time. "Let's just say I'm going to make him an offer he can't refuse." He smiled. "Maybe we shouldn't have sent Don Carpaccio off with that dwarf friend of yours. Carpaccio was good at offers you can't refuse."

Korg grinned. "Yeah. Pity there won't even be arms and legs left of the bloody quack by now. Lot o' girls back home wanted to see him . . . really badly. Anyway, I'll pop across and tell Mungo you're on your way. You don't need me to hold your hand to visit Huigi. He'll be far too willing to hold it for you, if you want it held."

So Squigs was left to find his own way through the marketplace. He noticed a certain inexplicable wariness about the voracious and loquacious vendors. A little island of silence went with him. He wondered if he needed a bath that badly. But he was too grateful to be curious.

He came to the back corner. There were voices from within the black tent. Not knowing how to proceed, Squigs cleared his throat.

Silence from within. Then, a cautious, "Who is it?"

"It's me." Realizing how silly this must sound, he said, "Squigs Harkness-Smythe. Um. I came to see you about a hand, with Miss Kentigern."

There was a silence within. Then, "Oh. Just a moment, you dahling boy."

There followed a hasty, whispered transaction and the sound of canvas being lifted. Then Huigi said, with a slightly false-sounding bonhomie, "Well, come in if you've got your trousers on, or come out if you got them off already, deah."

Squigs went into the tent. Ever since the ring on his finger had got its stone back, he had found his night sight had become almost catlike. He remembered how dark it seemed in this tent. Now the place, and especially the bottles and jars, seemed to glow with a faint, sickly-green luminescence.

The vampire gave him a nervous, toothy smile. "Er, sorry about that. Just ordering a couple of kidneys from the bloody butcher. So . . . how's the hand. I, er, I did say no returns, but I daresay . . ."

"Oh no. The hand's great. Excellent value. Very happy with it. So . . ." Squigs found himself at a loss. "Er, how are you doing? And how's business?"

The vamp relaxed visibly. "Oh, I'm much as usual dahling, just oversexed and underflayed, as the masochist always said. And business is brisk, thanks to your little visit to the brothel last night. I must say," he made a teapot gesture, and fluttered his lashes, "I didn't know you were like that, dahling. I mean, a boy's reputation . . ."

Squigs grinned. "You're a fraud, Huigi. Madame P. says you're a regular. So the story of our visit to her place has spread about the market, has it?"

Huigi put arm around Squigs. "You gorgeous hunk, you," he said archly. "I personally got seventeen customers out of it. Even if I hadn't, it's the gossip of the whole town by now. And the market is the heart of the town."

Squigs detached the arm from around his waist, briefly wondering if he should pull it right off. His black hand felt a sinewy bat-wing. One day he'd get used to whatever muck-up Huigi had made of connecting up some of the synapses. Fortunately it only felt odd things occasionally. "Huigi. Give it a break. Celestine filled me in on your actual preferences."

The vamp shrugged. "Sorry. Habit. I've been here too long. I must admit I thought you'd come to beat me up, and my nerves are still a bit jangly. What can I do for you?"

"Mungo's daughter's been kidnapped."

Huigi whistled. "Somebody's in shit. Tell Mungo I'll give him a discount on any repairs he needs. Nice kid, that."

"They took Baron Ashill's daughter too. Mungo, the baron, me, Korg the dwarf, and Slugger McGee from the Green Monkey are going after them."

Huigi whistled again. "You don't say! That's a bad-news bunch for somebody. No place to hide from a crew like you fellows."

Squigs looked carefully at him. "You knew all of that. What's that in your hand?"

The white-faced man actually blushed. He put the scalpel back in the tray of instruments. "I didn't know what sort of humor you'd be in when you came in here, and I'd heard stories . . ."

Squigs shook his head. "Look. They've taken Kate and Venus to Sylvan. We need a guide."

The Vamp really whistled this time. "I hadn't heard that," he admitted. "I don't have too many contacts over there any more, but . . ."

"I was told to say 'Aramara sent me,'" said Squigs, quietly.

The vampire's eyes went wide and dark. He sighed. "After all these years." He looked around the tent. "I don't suppose I've time to dispose of the merchandise, do I?" He sighed again. "You know, it was supposed to be a hardship post. But I actually got to like it. And to be honest, I'm scared of going back. I reckon I've done a good job over the years. Is she satisfied?"

Squigs blinked. "I don't know. A good job of what?"

"Spying for the Overlord, of course," said Huigi, matter-of-factly.

"Who is he?"

A rumble of thunder came from outside. Huigi looked down. "We operate on a need to know basis. And if you don't know, then believe me, you don't need to. Especially not if you still ask who he is. Come on. Let's move before the afternoon storm catches us."

The Crum had been irritated on their return. Firstly because they woke him up. And secondly because he rapidly gathered that they'd been to Madame Pompadour's. How, he enquired loudly, could they have gone without him? Did any of them go with Fifi?

He wasn't the only irritable one. Mungo had beckoned Squigs away from the crowd, and into the pantry. "Look, boyo! Why did you bring that bloodsucking fairy along?"

"Er. He's not a fairy . . ."

"He comes from Sylvan doesn't he?" said Mungo. "Fairyland."

Squigs opened his mouth to answer. And closed it abruptly. He stared at the space next to Mungo's shoulder. Went pale. Swallowed. Finally he said. "Mungo. Um. What did your wife look like?"

The big man's rigid face relaxed slightly. "Very like my Kathleen, just shorter. More, well, more elflike." He sighed gustily. "Finest lass in the whole of the fen-lands, my boy. Still, what's it got to do with that bloody pansy . . ."

"She's here. Your wife . . . I thought it was Kate at first, when I saw her standing holding on to you."

It was Mungo's turn to have his eyes nearly start out of their sockets.

"What! What's this you're givin' me?" he croaked. "My Maeve is five years in the grave. Not somethin' for you to make fun of . . ."

Squigs' eyes followed something unseen. "I think she forgot to tell you something." Without moving a step, he pointed across to where the first cupboard stood against the wall. "Go and feel behind that cupboard. About your shoulder height."

Silently, Mungo did. And brought out a rusty key. He went as pale as a sheet. The big man's voice was quiet and thick with emotion, "I miss you, Mae, I . . . still love you, you know. I'll bring our girl home."

"She's gone, sir," Squigs said finally, finding his own voice with difficulty.

The big man looked at the key. There were tear-tracks down his cheeks.

"She . . . um, hugged you, Mungo," said Squigs feeling the blood rush to his cheeks. "and . . . um, seemed to be . . . um, making a gesture . . .."

A smile like a sunrise broke over the big man's face. "Like this?" He indicated.

Wordlessly, Squigs nodded.

Mungo roared with laughter. "Hasn't changed a bit, has she!" and he walked off, humming like a contented boiler. At the door he turned, tossing the key up in the air. He looked twenty years younger, and Squigs realized just what sort of a tearaway the young Mungo Kentigern must have been. "By the way, even if you want to invite the whole of that 'Happy and Lesbian action group' you told us about the other day, it's also fine by me." He walked off, still humming.

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