Imogene there's no people
Suddenly, brightness streamed in through the little window of their cell. The girls stopped their amateur lock-picking, and stared at the oblong of bright sunshine.
"What on Zoar's happening? I thought that on this world it was light or dark. I didn't realize the sun ever got down here!" Venus looked astonished, and stretched out a cautious hand to feel the warmth.
Kate shrugged. "I'm sure the sun doesn't normally get here. Remember the mushroom forests. The locals must need it to survive, and somehow get the sun directed down here. Anyway let's go and enjoy it. I'm half-frozen." They went and sat down in the warm pool of sunshine.
Kate looked up at the window, glorying in the sunlight. "Look. There are roller-blinds up there." She sighed, "I suppose if we're bad girls they'll come and cut our sunshine ration."
The actual reason for the focused leaf-mirror directing sun through a series of lenses and down to this twilight fortress on the edge of the buttress roots was far more basic than mere survival. Just because you live in a dank castle in the shady side of an alien world, doesn't mean you don't have to keep up with the Joneses. Without the expensive sunlight the neatly landscaped garden in the courtyard would, at best, have grown mold, and the borders nodded with fly agaric and death-caps instead of clumps of daisies and cherished standard roses.
Vila looked out of window at them with satisfaction. The ransom note had been delivered. Now all she had to do was wait. At least she was home and could do it in comfort.
The nearest they could come to going southeast was to follow the heavily forested branch down its gently sloping length in a more or less southerly direction.
Huigi had proved that even if he didn't know exactly where they were, he was still worth having along. He had pointed out several superficially innocuous seeming death-traps, both animal and vegetable, hidden in the dense undergrowth. After about twenty-five minutes he brought them to the edge of a well-kept white road winding sinuously through the conifer-forest. Huigi's eyes widened a little on seeing it.
"I think," he said, with a trace of nervousness in his voice, "I'll just have another little flutter aloft." He hadn't been in the least discomforted by the snatch-trap spiders or the fling-dart bushes, even going as far as to trigger them to show the party how they worked. What was it about a safe-looking road that could worry him?
The Bat-man transmorphed, and with the twinkling of tiny wings flew to tree-top level. He returned far more hastily to the ground.
Through the befanged mouth it sounded like "Oh thit! Oh thitTHITTHIT!" as he hit the road surface, transmorphing as he landed. Even his normally very red lips were a bloodless white. He turned on Squigs. "Five million cube miles, and you have to choose to come here. And all I ever did to you was to play one stupid practical joke on you!"
"Calm down, man," Mungo said, with the coolness of a man who hunted dragons for a living. "What's the problem?"
"WHAT'S THE PROBLEM!" the vampire shrieked. "This is Wolfgang von Wolfrachen's branch, that's the bloody problem! And he and his hunting party are not two hundred yards off. Okay, so maybe I overcharged a few people, but what did I do to deserve this?"
"So run, or fly," said Korg coolly, tossing his axe lightly from hand to hand.
"Are you crazy!" yelled the vampire. "I said that it was his hunting party! Oh shit shitshitSHIT!"
Around the corner came the hunt of Wolfgang, Count von Wolfrachen. Squigs had to admit that he could quite see why Huigi wasn't trying to run. The yellow-eyed dogs were the size of Shetland ponies. Shetland ponies with the jaws and heads of hyenas. The riders' steeds were huge and coal-black with eyes of flame. The riders were . . . appropriate. Some carried hooded blue-black hawks, considerably bigger than Harpy-eagles.
Before the slavering hounds could start forward, a single horn note sounded. A huntsman, his great horse caracoling around the leading edge of the hounds, whipped them in, his eighteen-foot lash cracking above the snarling beasts. Then a man rode forward, past the hounds. He was of medium height, but of powerful, athletic build, with a mane of frost-silvered grey hair, and unusual, ferocious yellow eyes, set under a single line of black brow. The eyebrow ends lifted in a flying, satanic lilt.
His expression was urbane, but his voice had the thin edge of a very sharp knife through raw meat. "Well, well. The things that just fall out of the sky. When we spotted that strange device making a landing I had no idea what rare surprises it might bring. So, Master Bytte. We haven't seen you for some years. Imogene will be delighted to see you, I'm sure."
He turned to his huntsmen. "Provide mounts for them."
He turned back, to look at Huigi once more, the pitch of the eyebrows even more satanic. "As will your son."
Horse riding had never come Squigs' way before. Now he was learning.
If he fell off in this mass of riders he'd be a fine doormat with squashed-strawberry splodges between the hoof marks. They alternated between a trot and a canter, and Squigs was unable to decide which was the worst. The trot went up and down more, the rise always neatly corresponding to the fall of Squigs' backside or family jewels. The ground-eating canter of the huge horses was smoother, but too fast for comfort. As he clung frantically to the horse's mane and the saddle and anything else he could get his hands on, Squigs decided that hunting was indeed a fitting punishment for the upper classes. It was probably the infernal bouncing that affected their brains and soft palates and made them speak so oddly.
At last they slowed to a walk above a great scar. Below, nestled in the notch, from which some hundred-million-ton branch must have been torn, stood a castle. A castle to make Mad Ludwig's efforts at fairytale look like mere Janet-and-John stuff. A riot of spiky turrets, crenellated towers and flying buttresses, with golden hanging arches leading to balconied towers that leaned far out into the emptiness.
"The Schloss Raubgerig. Not much of a place, but it's home," said the count, gesturing to the golden castle below.
"Blimey!" said Slugger, still clinging desperately to the horse. It was plain that riding lessons hadn't come his way either.
"Upkeep must be the very devil," said Baron Ashill.
The count looked at him, frosty approval showing slightly in his narrowed eyes. "You sound as though you speak from experience. Hardly something I would have expected from Huigi's associates."
"He's supposed to be our guide," said Mungo shortly.
"And he brought you here?" The count's eyebrows flared again. He looked appraisingly at the miserable huddle that was Huigi.
"He got lost," said Squigs.
"Aha!" The count nodded. "He has not changed beyond recognition then. Imogene will be pleased. Let us proceed on down. We will discuss this later. At dinner." The Count lifted the silver-chased horn to his lips and sounded it, in a complex, wild tantivity. They rode on, down to the drawbridge which was being lowered, as the heavy portcullis was raised. The horses cantered across the drawbridge, beneath which a river raced and choked and flumed into a waterfall, which tumbled out into the emptiness and scattered to rainbow-mist in the green depths. They rode on under the barbican, and to a porte cochere in a wide courtyard. Here the count dismounted, and handed his horse to the waiting stable boy. He motioned to them to do the same. They did so with varying degrees of trepidation and relief.
A tall, somber individual appeared from the doorway at the head of the stairs. "Ah. Samur. See these gentlemen safely bestowed in the Calabar tower." He smiled mirthlessly at Huigi. "I have had bat-proof windows fitted to the Calabar rooms since your last visit . . . and abrupt departure." He turned once more to the butler. "Then, Samur, if you would tell Lady Imogene I will call on her in . . . perhaps fifteen minutes."
They were led, in silence, across the hanging arch to a tower that leaned into the void. The high-nosed Samur stopped at the door. "Please select apartments for yourselves. Servants will be along shortly to kindle fires and prepare the beds."
After they'd entered the doors swung closed, and they heard the unmistakable sound of bolts being pushed home.
A nervous and distinctly overawed Crum turned on the miserable Huigi. "What is going to happen now!" he demanded, shaking the vampire.
"If I'm lucky, the count will nail my wings to my sides and turf me over the edge of a balcony. One of the ones that hang over the waterfall," the little man-bat replied gloomily.
"And if you're unlucky?" Squigs couldn't stop himself asking.
"He'll try to make me marry Imogene," said Huigi miserably.
The two fathers of young, unmarried daughters rounded on him. "Nothing to what I'd have done to you if it had been Venus."
"Or my Kate, you little . . . " words failed Mungo, and he leaned threateningly toward Huigi.
"Look," said Huigi desperately, "it's not like that. You don't understand."
"Wot's to understand?" said Slugger, putting down his bag and mace, and cracking his knuckles suggestively. "Yer got the bleedin' girl up the spout, didn't yer. Pore kid. Then yer run aht on 'er. I've a good mind . . ."
"To do what my father wanted to do ten years ago." She had entered the room unheard and unseen. Lady Imogene was as white as the vampire. Her lips as red. Her nose as fine-boned as his, and her eyes, above her delicate high cheek bones as dark as her raven-wing hair. There was something a little wilder and more foxlike about her face. Also she was quite a bit taller than Huigi, with a generous forward endowment. And she didn't have the pencil moustache. "Samur just came and told me. I've opened the door. Now get lost again. Quickly."
The air was chill enough for the extra cooling caused by the parrot's materialization to pass unnoticed. Unlike its comments. "Awk! Fill 'er up? Weeeee, Same again? Awk. AWK, wot a fine PAIR!"
The dark-haired girl looked angrily at the parrot, before she turned and fled.
Slugger looked after her. "Phew. An' yer ran out on that piece o' bleedin' perfection. I arsk yer."
"Well, er, well she . . . was a vegetarian," said Huigi. "Very hard for a vampire to live with."
Mungo looked hard at Huigi. "You got her pregnant. When she told you, you came to see her father. He wanted to reduce you to pulp. And she told you to get lost."
The unhappy Huigi looked doubtfully at him.
The baron gave a wry smile. "Close, my friend. But no cigar. She seduced him. He didn't find out from her that she was pregnant either. Then when a 'friend' told him, he, being young and foolish, challenged her with it, and said they would have to get married now. Your exact words, young man?
Huigi nodded unhappily. "Um, yes. Except, well, I didn't try very hard not to be seduced. We were at university, see. Complaining about the rotten roles society cast us in, pawning our jewelry and buying a mechanical-bite. You know. Like in that magnificent Earth tragedy Rocky Horror. It was very big on campus just then. That's where I got the idea of being a sweetie pie on Zoar. Here on Sylvan . . . transmorphic relationships make fussing about the mere sex seem hilariously silly to us." He sighed. "Ah well, we were going to change the world, or so we thought. And she was part of everything that I was into. I didn't mean to get involved with her. I mean, she's an aristocrat. We Byttes are a just a solid yeoman family. It all just sort of happened. "
"But you did say to her 'Now I'll have to marry you, or your father'll kill me'?"
The vampire nodded. "And she said 'get lost, creep.' So I came here." He shuddered. "The old man turned into a wolf then and there, he was so mad. I was just a squeaking little bat between his teeth. I thought I was a goner for sure. But he spat me out and transmorphed again. Imogene was home. He called her in, yelled at her, and told her we were getting married. Now. I . . . I said I thought it was the right thing for us to do. She stormed out. He ran after her. I came back here, to this tower. Much later Imogene came and said I should get lost now. If I stayed and made her marry such a worthless jerk, then she'd kill herself. And she was dead serious. It was darkphase then. So I took all my courage and flitted. I was lucky. I got away from the wolbats. Got myself to my Uncle Sylvester Seline's place. He was just as mad with me . . . but he organized for me to be taken up into the agency. The Overlord put me on Zoar, and there I stayed put for ten years."
The vampire looked suspiciously at the baron. "Here. How come you knew all this? Are you in the agency too?"
The baron shook his head. "Let's just say it's a story I've heard before. Nearly ended the same way, too. I just . . . the other story had a few different words." He pursed his lips. "That's a very perspicacious parrot that you've fitted to our young colleague. Did you know, that given its very limited vocabulary, it always speaks the literal truth?"
The vampire looked sour. "It struck me as having far too extensive a bloody vocabulary. I didn't like what it had to say about Imogene. I mean, her breasts are not the subject for public commentary."
"I don't think," said the baron softly, "that the bird was referring to her at all, or not to her . . . on her own." He turned and smiled. "I'm going to wash before dinner. It should be an interesting meal. Mungo, my friend, a word with you before we go."
The vampire stood there, looking stunned.
"An interesting meal" was not how the bowl of unappetizing muck pushed under the door to the two prisoners could have been described. The flat flask of peat-stained water was more welcome. "Yuck. Do they think we're baby birds?" said Venus, eyeing the food suspiciously.
A low throaty chuckle came from outside their cell. "In about fifteen hours we'll know if they're prepared to bail you 'chicks' out. The second ransom note has been delivered." Kate hastily thrust the needle through the key-hole. And was rewarded by a yowl. Peering through the keyhole she saw that she'd judged the height correctly, and that Vila was moaning off down the passage, clutching her right breast.
"She didn't whizz round the room."
"Or pop. We'll just have to try again."
"At the schloss one is expected to dress for dinner, sirs." Samur eyed the tall Squigs and the dwarf, both still dripping, and in Squigs' case shivering, from their respective showers. Squigs had discovered that ornate gilding and porphyry tiles do not necessarily mean effective plumbing. "Do you require anything pressed? Or may we try to find suitable attire for you?"
Squigs had, since his precipitous flight, achieved the purchase of a few extra shirts and some underwear. The butler's manner set his back up. He wondered what the stiff-necked old barstool's reaction was going to be to his offensive T-shirt and much stained lab coat. Well, he'd just have to wait and see. "I'll wear my own clothes," he said shortly.
To his surprise Korg's reaction was entirely different. "Thanks. Very kind of you to give us your personal attention. I've a shirt and neck-tie for you to press. I've my own gear otherwise. Just as well, eh. Be the devil to find something in my size."
The high-nosed gentleman's gentleman permitted himself a slight hint of a smile. "Yes, sir."
Korg grinned back. "But you're not getting off easy all the way. We'll need some duds for the bean-pole." He hushed Squigs' protest with a lordly wave.
The comment had raised just a twitch of the straight line of the Butler's mouth. "I am sure the count's valet will contrive sir." He took the shirt that Korg had handed him and raised a faint eyebrow. "Will that be all, sir?"
Korg nodded and gave a cheery wave.
"Just what the hell is going on?" demanded Squigs as soon as the man had gone.
Korg grinned at him. "Don't make waves just to see them splash out the bath-tub, tall 'un. Listen, when you've knocked around as much as I have, in some pretty spiff places too, in my line o' work, you'll learn a thing or two. And one of them is that the high-muck-a-muck doesn't trot about after the unwanted guests. That is not unless the high-muck-a-muck wants to. He must have done a fair sprint to tell the count's daughter about who her dad brought home. Not what he was told to do. And I'm willin' to bet you a hundred Kares that she sent him back here now. Odds o' ten to one he half raised the kid. He's not so bad. And we might need friends. So you just get off your hoity-toity horse, and be polite. That's the word from the baron. He said to tell you especially. He reckons if we play this right, we might end up with the kind of help and guidance we really need. I mean, do you want to rescue the girls or prove that you can get some poor servant into bog? If he doesn't act like that, he's out of a job, sharpish."
It had not occurred to Squigs that, in this society, egalitarianism might be an insult. Or that he was being an offensive jerk, to someone who was in no position to tell him so. Besides, depressingly, Korg and the baron were right. He could have got himself killed just to prove a stupid point while Kate and Venus needed them. He resolved to keep his mouth shut, ears open and his big feet along the path of locally correct behavior. He grimaced. Just look what had happened to him last time he'd tried to do that. He made a mental note to stay away from strong drink.
In an amazingly short time, the butler returned. He handed the neatly folded shirt to the dwarf. "The count's valet, sir, was most impressed by the quality of your linen. Much better than our local work, sir, if I may venture the opinion."
The dwarf looked vaguely embarrassed. "Picked it up on my travels somewhere." Then he recognized the statement for what it was, a trolled bait for information. "In Zoar. Where Huigi was our local armorer. The best in the swamps." Korg calmly left out that he was also the worst in the swamps.
"You don't say, sir. The Lady Imogene did say Master Bytte was training to be one. Now, if the tall gentlemen would condescend to try these garments . . . " Squigs stepped through to the dressing-room. But not before he'd heard the butler casually enquire, "These swamps. Are they extensive, sir?"
"Couple of million square miles," said Korg. "Heart of the dragon-hunting country, y'know."
Squigs made a mental note not to buy any used cars from the dwarf.
A tall thin penguin. A short squat penguin. In a dress kilt, complete with sporran. The tall penguin was studiously not commenting about it. He had never seen a tartan quite like that. Well, vertical lines were supposed to accentuate your height. And there was also a very nervous slightly less-than-medium-height penguin, with just the incipient hint of a paunch. Still, it was unfair to call Huigi a penguin. He usually looked like that, after all. Formal evening-dress was natural to him. But the nervous part was spot on. "Look," he said, rubbing his hands, ". . . I need some advice. About women."
Squigs stroked his arm and looked archly at him. "But Huigi, dahling, you told me you liked manly men. . . I mean, women! Of course I've nothing against them personally, doll, but they're rather, you know, like manure. Terribly fertile."
Irritatedly, Huigi shook off Squigs' caressing hand. "Tch! Okay! Call it quits. Please. I need help, not your stupid jokes."
"Most of your customers did, too," growled Korg, "but yes, what can we do for you?"
"Seriously, count me out," said Squigs. "I'm about as qualified to advise on women as politicians back on Earth are to run governments. Like them, I know less than nothing about what I should do, I always do it as badly as possible, and every time I open my mouth I say exactly the wrong thing." He grinned nastily at Huigi. "Unlike this parrot you gave me, who usually seems to get it right. Maybe you should ask it?"
A distant gong sounded. Baron Ashill bustled in, his shiny-kneed blacks worn with casual familiarity. He wore the colors of several orders around his neck. "Come along. It won't do to irritate our host."
Squigs thought this would be a rather futile effort, considering. But if the count was intending dire consequences, he hid it well. He appeared the model of urbane gentility. The butler announced them and the count greeted each of them with a frosty affability, as if they had not been brought here as virtual prisoners. Squigs did notice that the black hand did its own ministry of funny handshakes again, but the count gave little more than a slightly pre-occupied smile. He politely ignored lapses in behavior inevitable from the obviously very uncomfortable Slugger. When the Crum drank all the waiting cocktails, he simply called for more, as if a guest with two drinks in each hand was an everyday occurrence. He listened to the kidnapping saga with politeness, but no overt signs of allowing his attention to be shifted. But he circulated carefully, conversing briefly with each them, a punctilious, if preoccupied, host.
The entire affair was one of crushing boredom, and polite nothings. Huigi and Imogene carefully ignored each other, both spoke in absolute monosyllables, and only if directly addressed. Only Baron Ashill appeared unperturbed, and talked cheerfully to his host. Squigs decided that if it had not been for the potential deadliness of the situation, it could have been the most terrible evening of his life. Even the food was dull and overcooked, not that anyone ate much of it anyway. As it was, because the werewolf count was probably going to make up for the overcooked food with very rare bat, Squigs decided it probably would be the most terrible evening of his life.
Finally, when the dry roast was removed, the vampire sprang to his feet. "I've had enough of this cat-and-mouse game," he said. "Kill me if you want to, Count Wolfgang. I'm not going to marry your daughter to oblige you, or society. The Lady Imogene is the finest and fairest woman of all Sylvan. I'm proud to have loved her. But she deserves someone far better than I. Kill me. Make her an honorable widow. I've just one last request. I want to see my son."
"You have no son," said the Werewolf Count grimly.
"He's of my blood, no matter what you call him! You'll not deny me this . . . or I'll rip your throat out!" Lightnings and darkness flared in Huigi's eyes.
The count smiled. Wolfishly.
Huigi stepped forward toward him, his canines visibly growing.
"STOP IT!" Imogene shrieked. "Huigi! I wasn't ever pregnant, you fool! I just said it because you weren't taking any notice of me."
Imogene had flung herself between her former lover and her father. She seized Huigi by the shoulders. The vampire stood, his clawed hands reaching. And his jaw reaching too . . . for his elegant grey half-boots. "Imo . . . dammit! I was writing my flaming finals!"
The count stood up. Huge. Appearing far bigger than his actual size. His strong white teeth showing in a dog-like snarling grin. Imogene turned to face him and began to transmorphose herself. Snarling defensively . . . at her father. "Don't! Don't you dare! He never ran away. And he won't now. You'd have to kill him. He only went before because I told him I'd kill myself if he didn't. He's an idiot. But he's my idiot. I won't let you hurt him!"
The great werewolf's head lifted, and the terrible red mouth gaped. And suddenly . . . he laughed. A triumphant laugh, "At last."
Somehow the dread beast faded, and the aristocratic and conscientious host returned, no longer preoccupied with other matters. He looked younger. "Gentlemen, Mr. Bytte, my dear daughter. My humble apologies. Shall we adjourn to the drawing room, so I can hear the soppy details in comfort?"
"NO!" bellowed Crummag. "shRip hish fugging shroat out, wolfie. juGet 'im!" he slurred happily. The Crum had been bored. No one else had been drinking much of the wine. So he'd made up for it for them. And now, at last, the floor show had arrived.
Slugger shook his head, and brought a ham-sized fist into contact with the point of Crummag's jaw. He even caught him before he splatted onto the butter-dish. "Sorry, Yer Countship," he said calmly.
The Count did not seem offended. "Bravo. Unfortunately, Sambur has probably recalled the footmen to ensure our privacy. I'll summon him, and have this . . . person removed to his rooms."
Slugger stood up, and then picked up Crummag under one arm with alarming casualness. "I wouldn't bother 'im, Yer Countship. I'm used ter it, like. I took the job at the bleedin' Green Monkey cause they told me it 'ud be night work wiv no 'eavy liftin'. An' wot do the bleeders do but put me on the day shift where I'm awlways 'aving ter toss 'eavies aht. I'll take 'im back ter 'is bed, an' get aht of this bleedin' monkey-suit wot somebody wiv a smaller neck, an' waistline, so kindly len' me. Then, if it's orlright by you, I'll get daan ter the kitchen an' teach yer cook 'ow ter do some 'arfway decent rare steaks, while you finish sortin' them silly kids aht."
The count's wolfish smile reappeared. "I haven't had a rare steak for thirty years. If you can produce that, I'll have to rethink my plans for my daughter."
Slugger paused in the doorway. "No fanks, Yer Countship. I'm not the marryin' kind. But yer don't mind if I freaten ter cut the steaks orf the cook's backside, do yer? Never fails," he said cheerfully.
"Probably," said the count, shaking his head, "because they believe him. That's quite a fellow, that. Not that I think you've made a mistake, my dear," he said to his daughter, who was holding Huigi's hand somewhat timidly, "but one should be aware that accent and origins are sometimes irrelevant. Now, shall we adjourn?"
Venus dropped to the floor again. Put the chamber-pot down. "Sorry that took so long. They're getting a lot more careful about where they walk." There was a lot of swearing coming up from the courtyard. But, out of respect for their mistress's orders, tradition was consigned to the dustbin, and the obstreperous prisoners didn't get the living shit beaten out of them.
Although traditions have a habit of becoming dressed up in all sorts of trivia and irrelevancies, there is almost always a concrete reason for their origins. Ignore them at your peril.
They sat on one of the balconies of the tower called Adamantine, and watched the spray rainbows drifting downwards against the panoply of emerald and distant shadow. The empty plates on the table held the mute, bloody traces of testimony to the success of Slugger. That worthy belched contentedly. "Shame abaht th'garlic," he said. "Yer sure it'll poison yer?"
"Unfortunately, yes." The Count looked regretfully at the plate, in such a way that Squigs was nearly sure that if he had not been entertaining guests, the aristocratic gentleman would have licked it. Slugger caught the look. He slapped his forehead. "I bleedin' nearly forgot." He leapt up and bustled away. He returned a few minutes later with a crusty loaf that was so hot he was juggling with it. "'ere. Somein' ter sop up the gravy wiv."
The Count watched as Slugger ripped himself a hunk of the steaming white bread and began sponging his plate with it. Then the aristocrat tore a flap of it off himself and followed suit. "You just baked this? It is magnificent! Especially when compared to the thin slices of cardboard I usually get!"
Slugger just shook his head, his mouth being too full for speech. After swallowing, and washing his throat clear with a mere half tankard of a noble vintage wine the count's father had put down, he explained, "Nah. Taught yer cook ter make it. 'e's a quick learner."
The count stared at him, open mouthed. "The kitchen is an institution. The food they produce is just as it was in my grandfather's day. Some of the meals I swear they've been keeping luke-warm ever since then. When you have completed your quest, would you care to make an extended visit?" he pleaded.
Slugger belched. "I'll give it a thort, Yer Countship. Pretty place you 'ave ere. But we've gotter find Miz Kate first."
The werewolf count nodded. "Quite understandable. And to that end, I have given some thought to the probable destination of your fugitives. After some thought I have decided it could only possibly be one place. The Schloss Wassergrab. It is less than fifty miles off. Down there." He pointed a long finger into the dapple-shadowed void. "The person you describe as 'Vila' would fit what I know of an exile from darkside, the rusalka, Danuba."
"Great!" said Squigs, pushing his chair back.
"How do we get there?" Korg was already standing up. He reached for his axe, while wiping his mouth with the other hand.
The Count pursed his lips. "Getting to it is simple. Getting in . . ." He shook his head. "It is an evil place. And its defenses, both physical and otherwise are . . . superb. It would stand a long siege, and even with every warrior I can gather, I do not know if we would ever succeed in capturing it. And its mistress, well, she is one who would chop the entire tree down and destroy everything and everyone rather than be defeated."
"We have to try," Squigs said, also standing up.
The count raised an imperious hand. "Wait. I have spoken to Sambur. He is making contact with various ay . . . contacts. We will know for certain whether they are incarcerated in Schloss Wassergrab within another hour, or an hour and a half, at the outside. Then I will aid you. Either in the search, or in the attack."
Korg rocked on the balls of his feet for a minute. Then he nodded. "Much obliged. If we're going to hang around for a bit, I'll go and make us some decent coffee." He stumped off.
Huigi had looked at the werewolf count with narrowing eyes. "A private word, father-in-law to be."
The count got up and walked off to the balcony edge with him. The distance and the sound of the water should have masked their voices, but Squigs found that his hearing as well as his sight had improved since the ring on his finger had received its stone.
"The quick brown dog," said Huigi.
"Jumps over the lazy fox," replied the Count looking across at the rest of the party. "The water-noise should make it impossible to eavesdrop. So. You are also part of the agency." He snorted. "No wonder I couldn't find you. I thought you were just some student trash."
"Student trash sometimes graduate," said Huigi. "My Uncle Sylvester Seline . . ."
"Hush," said the Count. "His name as part of the agency is only known to a very few. I thought in fact it was only the two of us. Myself, as I report to him. And whoever his superior is. So, he's your uncle, is he? Imogene had no idea what deep water she was playing in. Do you know that the tall fellow is a very high ranking member of the Recent and Much Mocked order?"
Huigi glanced quickly at Squigs. "No! Well, to be honest I thought he was a complete passenger, and a bit of a molly, who can sometimes go berserk. How do you know?"
"He gave the recognition signals," said the Count. "I am a member, you see."
"I don't see the relevancy, to be honest. What is their interest?" asked Huigi.
"My dear Hu. The agency has been trying to penetrate their senior ranks for several hundred years. We've been so effectively blocked, that Sylvester thinks they must have penetrated us. Higher up. I," he said, "have another theory."
Huigi flicked anther glance at Squigs. "And that is?"
"Quis Custodiet ipsos Custodes, my dear boy," said the Count, dryly. "I think they exist to watch us. So, go cautiously with that one."
Huigi grimaced. "I haven't in the past. He has a quick mind, I admit. What I wanted to suggest is that all of this smacks of being part of something bigger. You know, both the poaching and the kidnapping seem to have a common thread. It smells. Perhaps the agency has a line on it. Can you obtain reports from agents on Zoar, Earth, and Hell? Or must I talk to Uncle Sylvester?"
The count shrugged. "I am the conduit for the reports from Zoar. Most of the frequent congruencies are in my demesnes. We have several agents there. Other than the reports coming from the Marshes of Sennaput, on the dragon-poaching, nothing. I'm very well informed on that. One of our best agents operates out of there. The man must have a finger in every pie."
Suspicion bloomed in Huigi's eyes. "From Zikdoonvarna."
"Yes," said the Count. "It's the major town, I believe."
Huigi put his face in his hands. Sighed. Looked up at the count. "You've been looking for me for ten years?" he asked, quietly.
"Yes. But I assure you, my boy, once I had time to think it all through . . ."
"I have been reporting to you, for ten years," interrupted Huigi. "From Zikdoonvarna."
The werewolf closed his mouth with an audible snap. Finally he said in a strangled voice, "Your uncle never knew who his own father was."
"I could add to that," said Huigi savagely.
The count was beginning to make strangled noises. Huigi looked worriedly at him for a moment. Then he realized that the count was trying to stop himself from laughing. "I'll pass on the request for correlation of information from Earth and Hell. Sylvester, damn him, made sure I got to know you, anyway. You know, I did once request information of my agents on Zoar. I asked whether any of them had seen or heard of a cowardly, weedy little vamp-rat, with a receding chin, long hair and round dark glasses. Last seen wearing frayed denims, a black shirt and a leather jacket. My agent in Zikdoonvarna said he hadn't come across any such person!"
Huigi looked blank. Then he smiled. "But that description hardly fitted my elegant self, Count Von Wolfrachen. Shall we rejoin the others?"
"Yes," said the count dryly. "Before Imogene takes it into her head that you're not taking any notice of her." He sighed. "After her mother ran off with that artist fellow, I did spoil her I'm afraid, Hu."
They rejoined the party. A team of gardeners, carrying implements and cages, all clad in identical brightly colored overalls and broad hats, had come out onto the grassy knoll to the right of the waterfall. And the baron eyed them with jealousy. "Now that's something I wish we could afford for Long-Ash," he said.
"They're contractors." The count sighed. "Garden services. Keeping our own people just became too expensive. You mustn't think, Mr. Bytte, that you're marrying money as well as Imogene. This all costs more to keep up than we make. Can't change much though. It's all bound up in traditions."
An idea began to germinate in Squigs' fertile brain. Before it could actually sprout however, Korg came back bearing his battered cast iron coffee pot, a wicked little curl of steam rising from it. Squigs leaned over and said quietly to the Count. "Beware. That coffee is very, very strong."
The count brightened. "Excellent. The stuff I usually get is like dish-water."
Squigs said no more, and merely bided his time, letting the leaves of his idea unfurl in his mind, as he watched patiently.
It was worth it.
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