"Six men went to mow, went to mow a meadow"
"So I can wait no longer?" M'lord Strate said to the seven beings in the sulphurous-smoky room. All of those he consulted bore an unmistakable stamp. True, they weren't wearing ties, that normal trademark of the investment banker, stockbroker or market manipulator. Two of them would have had serious problems doing so, as they were not equipped with necks. A third would have had to buy them by the dozen. Yet, despite their outlandish appearance they could have popped into Wall Street without exciting comment. Money-men, who deal in paper, not actual fruit and veg, or, as more likely on Sylvan, flesh and blood, have certain characteristics which transcend nation, sex or even species. Even in Earth's most conservative stock exchanges, both adders and sharks are always to be found, after all.
The six all shook their heads. One of them shook all twelve of his. "The market's peaked," said one.
"Very well. Despite certain . . . outstanding commitments, we are agreed. Tomorrow I will release from the press the prisoner who will reveal that I have been transmuting lead to gold. At the same time as the press release, Opement, you are going to start trying to buy a job-lot of dragon's teeth. You will set up a mighty howl, when there are none for sale for any kind of money." Opement nodded its heads. It was well equipped for mighty howls. "Insider trading!" it said.
"Then, we get ready for the bear-run and the subsequent roller-coaster ride," said another toothily. It had many teeth.
Another rubbed five of its hands, while scratching its derriere and an ear with the other two. "It'll be a black Thursday. We're going to make a killing!"
"Several, Oper, believe me," said M'lord Strate. "Still, some deaths are regrettably unavoidable. It'll be cheaper than retrenching them." One got the impression that M'lord Strate's retrenchment packages would involve a certain amount of digging. "We'll have to make some sacrifices." The word carried a hint of blood-stained stones, and was plainly relished. "Still, we've all got our targets to buy at bargain basement prices."
"Hur Hur. Several of our overexposed colleagues are gonna get to that bargain basement sale by jumpin' from the windows," chortled the fat, neckless one.
"Indeed. Their ichor should add liquidity to the market. And by tomorrow night, I will be the majority shareholder in nearly every House Minor . . . By Monday, at the latest, the other lords, particularly Eralise, Dant and Tia, will be laying siege to my castle." Strate smiled. It was not a pleasant sight.
They poured over the map and the plan that Samur had brought in. "You certainly have amazing . . . contacts," said Baron Ashill, dryly. "Not only confirmation of where the girls are, but information on which building, and also plans of that building. I'm impressed." His voice, however, said he was suspicious rather than impressed.
A dangerous flame leapt into Mungo's eyes as the baron's suspicions caught there, too. "You think he's tryin' to cloud the issue with red herrings, to throw the dust in our eyes . . . ?"
"It is a very extensive network that I have access to, yes," said the count. "I can understand the way your minds are working, but believe me, I act in good faith. I am going to join the attack myself, and my own folk will make up the bulk of your forces."
The parrot appearing on Squigs' shoulder, said "Awk. No Bullshit!" before divebombing Korg, and disappearing to all eyes but Squigs'. For which, considering what the revolting bird was doing, Squigs was devoutly grateful.
The baron smiled at the startled and somewhat offended-looking count. "That is good enough for me. That foul-mouthed familiar-fowl has just vouched for you."
The count turned his attention to Squigs. "I have heard of a similar case . . . centuries ago . . ." A puzzled look remained on his face.
The count's butler looked as if he was going to faint, however.
Squigs had an unconscionable feeling that he ought to move the conversation along. "I've an idea of how to get into the Schloss Wassergrab, er, by guile, rather than frontal attack." He pointed to the plan. "Outside the tower here, this is described as an 'ornamental garden'?"
The count nodded. "They use reflected sunlight. Costs a fortune to get down there. I daresay that's why Danuba's had to resort to doing dirty deeds. It's not dirt cheap to run that sort of establishment. Not that that sort of thing isn't in her nature."
"Does she perhaps, er, resort to using . . . Garden Services?" Squigs asked.
The Count's eyes narrowed. He smiled, wolfishly. "We'll know, at least if they use the same company as I do, in two shakes. Brilliant, my boy. March an army down there and they'll shut up siege-tight. But if you trot along with rakes and shears and grass cutters you'll get right inside their main defenses."
The rusalka Danuba did not do business with the count's Ace Garden Services. She had a contract with Acne Garden Services instead. The owner of Ace, however, er, owned Acne as well. And a team of gardeners were due at Wassergrab in less than ten hours time.
They walked across the long hanging arch, the three of them, listening to the winds of Sylvan singing in the suspension cables. Squigs, Korg and Baron Ashill were heading for a few hour's sleep before their venture into gardening.
Squigs looked across the gap, to the distant balcony where two black-and-white figures stood entwined in each other's arms. "Do you think she'll convert him to vegetarianism?"
The baron shook his leonine head. "It doesn't make much biological sense."
"If you ask me," said Korg, in a tired grumble, "that girl doesn't have much sense, never mind biological. Your wife, Baron, thought girls like that equal to men?"
Baron Ashill laughed. "No. My Dot never believed in equality. 'Why settle for mere equality when you can have superiority!' was always Dot's warcry. Anyway, I don't think the vampire's girl particularly stupid, outside of affairs of the heart. And we are all stupid about those, eh?"
Squigs thought of his mum. She'd approve of the baron's late wife. But he, personally, was not prepared to acknowledge anyone's superiority. "Did you accept that?"
The baron shrugged. "No. But it was an affair of the heart . . . for both of us. But I did accept that Pankhurst was brighter than I was. And faster. Prettier too. And female, very definitely."
Korg grinned tiredly. "I know one girl who makes me do daft things, anyway. But you're right, Baron, if I get your drift. Some of the girls back home are as sharp as tintacks . . . others'll drink olive oil and reckon that'll fix their problems."
The baron nodded cheerfully. "Indeed. I always said that the claiming of superiority of women as a group was the defense of those who were unable to prove it as individuals. Used to shut m'wife up every time. I'd remember that, if I were you, Korg, for future reference, as it were. She's her mother's daughter, you know."
It was the first mention Squigs had heard the baron make to Korg's courtship of his daughter. He didn't sound disapproving. Funny, he wouldn't have thought that old aristocracy would welcome the attentions of someone as common as the dwarf. Not that you could exactly call Korg common, or at least not in the "ordinary" sense of the word! Still, if the Baron could evolve a philosophy like that about gender . . . in his macho society, he was no ordinary aristocrat either. He wouldn't be surprised to hear Ashill apply his philosophy to class and color too. Squigs wondered if he'd ever dare to point out to Korg that it might even apply to height. On reflection, he thought, hiding his grin, probably not.
For once Crummag, despite the hangover, was not the most grumpy and moansome member of the party. Korg had totally eclipsed him. But then, his role really affronted the little man's dignity. The others at least got to wear brightly colored overalls, and broad hats. Korg had to travel in a cage. He was dressed up in a slightly moth-eaten fur and wearing a long, square-toothed mask. He was conspicuously not happy, particularly as the weedeater in the next cage kept nuzzling up to him affectionately, and presenting him with her posterior to sniff. He probably wouldn't have liked that even if she hadn't been green, with a warthog-tapir face and rooting tusks as well as teeth like a buzz-saw. She also had long curly horns and a strong goaty odor.
The male weedeater, two cages down, didn't look too pleased by the attentions Korg was getting either.
In a world-environment supposedly designed by a paranormal ecologist, such bits of fairly obvious genetic engineering shouldn't have surprised Squigs. It didn't stop him from finding the idea vaguely distasteful and disturbing, however. He supposed it could be excused as selective breeding, without killing off the unsuccessful intermediate stages, but still . . . He sighed. All in all, it had been a disturbing and distasteful morning, if you could consider this continuation of daylight morning.
It had all started with his decision to leave the PC-notebook at the castle. The enterprise that they were about to take on was, by the sounds of it, potentially suicidal. If they got to the girls, and if all of them got away, it would be nothing short of miraculous. And if he was the one who didn't get away, he didn't want to leave the others stranded here. Running the congruence, near-congruence predictor program was simple enough. He was sure he could get a few of his companions to understand enough of it to get them home. Not the Crum, who would probably break it. Not Mungo, or Slugger, who were admittedly not mechanically inclined. However Korg and the baron would do for a beginning, and, after some thought, he decided to include Huigi.
He'd been surprised by the vampire's calm assertion that he would join the grass-cutting team when the plan was mooted. It had showed. Huigi had been amused rather than offended. He made a moue. "Tch!" he clicked his tongue, then licked his long teeth, and lifted an arch eyebrow, "So you think I'm . . . not much of a vamp," he simpered seductively, his head tilted. "Don't you judge a book by its covah-hah-hah!" The rest of the assembly did not recognize the context, but it was enough to make both Imogene and Squigs shout with laughter. The count also graciously acknowledged a hit, and Squigs had decided that Huigi was in fact the perfect "spy" for whatever his secretive agency was. An unprepossessing exterior hid something quite different. It was so effective that, even after seeing Huigi's underlying character exposed, Squigs still expected him to react like a rat.
Korg and the baron had already woken up, but they had to go and shake bat-Huigi from his upside-down dangle on the shower-rail. He looked at them owlish for a minute before shaking himself into human form. "Sorry," he yawned. "I find I can do with less sleep like that. And," he grimaced, "I still didn't get enough. My prospective father-in-law waited until I escorted Imo to her room and then dragged me off, not quite by the scruff of the neck, to his lair. An oddly honorable fellow he is. He wanted to discuss his financial affairs and responsibilities with me . . . in case he failed to come back from this expedition we're about to embark on."
He cocked an eyebrow at the baron. "I conclude that the aristocracy have no financial management skills at all."
Baron Ashill nodded gloomily.
Huigi shook his head disapprovingly, "You weren't bred for that, I suppose. But honestly! Well, I suppose it's a way of recycling money."
Before Squigs was allowed to explain his reason for waking them, Huigi had to get it all off his chest. The count was absolute lord of a large, old branch. It started low, a mere mile from ground level, and went all the way up to canopy level. A road ran along it. Maintained and kept safe by the Hunt, which was not just ornamental. And where the branch crossed above others there were cable-winches. The count's income was derived from fares paid by those who wished to move in relative safety between branches. It was the main thoroughfare for several hundred miles of Shadowzone. "The fares have remained the same for more than 36,000 shadows, that is about 300 of your years," he said. "Needless to say, costs haven't."
The baron shrugged. "Noblesse oblige, old boy."
Huigi grinned. "Isn't it fortunate for Imo that she had to take a fancy to a commoner? Besides, just incidentally, I made a fortune on Zoar. I just need to repatriate it before I start my program of radical changes."
"So you're going to raise prices?" Baron Ashill did not approve.
"Oh no," said Huigi airily. "I'm going to slash them. Offer substantial discounts, if merchants are prepared to make use of balanced lots, counterweighting up and down loads, and also for full load off peak-period use. They'll jump at it, believe me. That will cut costs by about sixty percent, I estimate. Then when ninety percent of the loads are carried like that, we'll up the prices of the small loads. Too expensive to maintain the service otherwise . . . and you can always make do with the far cheaper way. And then we're going to improve the roads."
"Reinvest the money you make back into estate-maintenance?" the baron approved of this.
"No," said Huigi cheerfully. "The old road will remain . . . but the new one will be toll-funded. Of course, the old one won't be as well maintained or safe, but there will be a faster, safer alternative."
Baron Ashill shook his head. Huigi laughed. "Believe it or not, Baron, most of the public can love being screwed out of more money. It's just how you do it. Now, what did you wake me up for?"
None of the three had any trouble grasping how to work the PC, nor how to run the program. It was simple to use, if not to understand. Both Korg and the Baron saw it as a way of returning home, and nothing more. But Huigi had regarded the device with silence and big eyes. "Do you realize," he said finally, "just how valuable that is?"
Squigs shook his head. "I can see it might make for easier trade, I suppose."
The vampire bit his lip. He bit it so hard that dark blood came. "Show no one and tell no one about this . . . thing. Hide it!"
"Where? It's best hidden in the open. Anyway, I could always make another."
Huigi pointed an elegant forefinger at the notebook PC and Squigs. "Half of Sylvan would be prepared to kill you, and several million others, for that. Almost all of the rest would be prepared to kill you, and several million others, to stop that information becoming available."
"But why?" said Korg, staring at them.
Squigs blinked. "Blood?"
"Yes," said Huigi grimly. "Human blood. The currency of Sylvan. More relevant than gold, or paper, or cowrie shells. It is something that all morphogenetic Sylvanians have a biological need for. It's a currency we must get . . . or die. Besides, most of us like it. Locally, it is only obtainable in very limited quantities. You don't realize just how lucky you are in your host's impeccable manners. Imagine the Crum if several million Kares landed in his lap . . . Anyway, congruencies to Zoar, and better still to Earth, are well known. Our planet has a predictable cycle, and some sites and times are also well known. They are policed, by those who control access to Sylvan's own human population. They don't want to see the currency they hold debased, after all. Blood-raids on Earth have not happened for oh, a long while. I'm not saying an occasional loose biter doesn't get there, usually through an unknown congruency. And then the poor beggars are stuck there until they die of a lack of trace elements. This," he said, pointing again, "is why the girls were kidnapped. With this device, transit becomes easy and unstoppable."
"Then why the dragon poaching?" asked the baron, chewing the end of his much-prized moustache. "No. This . . . device may be part of the answer, my friend, but the whole picture it is not."
This reinforced Squigs' idea that, rather than helping to be a solution to Mungo and Kate's problems, he might actually be the root cause of them. It preyed on his mind. He'd hardly paid any heed to the five-thousand-foot ride down in the cage-hoist, with nervy guards keeping a wary eye out for wolbats or other predators. He'd also given only half of his concentration to the Garden Services man who was instructing them on their tasks before being apparently hit on the head and tied up. It was a shame that he hadn't given more attention to the poor fellow, or the roles to which they were ascribed.
He might have foreseen problems.
There is a basic rule of gardening which states that the appropriateness to the environment of the plant is inversely proportional to its desirability. For example while the accomplished gardener in Manaus has pride in his roses, the Scandinavian lavishes money and effort on his or her tropical orchids. Likewise in Arizona you can't give away the xerophytic thorny monstrosities that will be bought at enormous expense and dearly cherished in London. And on a dark root-edge in Sylvan's shadow-zone, on a root-knoll island surrounded by an icy, rushing torrent, in the middle of a dead-white fungus-forest, Vila's pride and joy was her cactus collection.
Cold-blooded murder, torture, betrayals and seductive treachery, and the keeping of cacti, are not mutually exclusive pastimes. The rusalka Vila Danuba regarded the former as hobbies in which she liked to dabble. Her actual work and life's joy unfortunately cost money to maintain. Fortunately her hobbies paid extremely well. She was wandering around the beautiful long-spined things with her current paramour, the undine Chloe. It was a relationship sweetened for both of them by its heady uncertainty, and a mutual passion for deceptive treachery. Indeed, Vila was thinking regretfully, it was pity she'd have to murder Chloe soon, but her darling was undoubtedly getting bored, and soon would start planning to kill her. Vila leaned in close and rubbed herself seductively against Chloe. "Look at all these gorgeous pricks, lover."
Lords Eralise, Dant and Tia had arrived at M'lord Strate's castle in the middle of Sunday afternoon, according to the remarkably fine digital watch which M'lord had given Ortant. As it was always basically night in the cold orb of Hell, because the sun was not visible from the surface of the planet, the term Sunday was something of a mystery to the imp. Nevertheless, it was the system his master chose to follow, and therefore Ortant abided by its rules. "Go away," he said coldly, from the high battlements. "My master is having his nap."
The great lords, having no respect for Earth's traditions, were shocked. Great armies stretched behind them. They would have darkened the cold plains with their numbers, were it not dark already. It was also a little worrying that a mere imp should dare to be so impudent. However, they were there in force. They would teach this meddling upstart. "We insist," said Lord Dant in his sibilant voice.
"We will see him now. Or I will leave nothing of this castle but its leached stones, crumbling into dust around you." Coming from Lord Eralise this was no idle threat.
"And torture all within far beyond the edge of madness." Lord Tia's voice suggested that he himself had reached that point some time ago. The same could be said of his forces, who fought, like their master, with such rabid insanity that few would dare to challenge them.
Ortant gave a shrug. It was a very good shrug considering that he was actually quivering in his boots. "Very well. I'll tell His Lordship. But I don't think he's going to be very impressed."
A few minutes later Lord Strate appeared on the battlements. He looked pointedly at his watch. "You're too late for lunch and too early for tea," he said coldly. He turned and began to walk away.
The three lords were nearly incoherent with rage. At least Dant and Eralise were. Tia was already totally incoherent. And foaming at all of his mouths. Dant however did manage to stutter out, "We didn't come to take tea! We . . ."
"No." Lord Strate turned back to face them and smiled, "you've come to be my tea." He looked to the waiting Ortant, who stood with his hand on the button. "Activate."
"That's it! It moved! Try again, Vee!" The Kate and Venus team, with its high level of intelligence and sheer bloody-minded determination, was going to beat this lock. They had gone from first principles (I can't get out!) to deducing the need to move the tumblers inside the lock in a remarkably short span of time. Now the lock decided that surrender was easier than surviving the constant prodding and poking about in its private parts. The third lever clicked over loudly. In an amazing display of team like-mindedness they each clapped a hand over the other's mouth. Cautiously they tried the door. Creakily, it began to open. Venus pulled it shut. She pointed to a certain item on the floor. "Let's organize a distraction first."
It was Kate's turn. Venus made a stirrup for her with her hands and Kate soon stood on her shoulders. She couldn't believe her luck. Straight below the tower window was a target in a broad hat and bright overalls. The fellow was standing still, attempting to control some kind of beast, and not managing very well. "Bombs away!" she said happily. "Let's go!"
Squigs looked nervously about. Peeped at his watch. Another two minutes. The count's heavy cavalry would have disembarked from the hoist by now. The late border guards would give no warning. In exactly two minutes the plan would go into smooth action. They'd only have to hold the gate-tower and drawbridge for four more minutes after that before the count's forces should be there, trampling the lovingly tended lawn that the Acne Garden Services team were supposedly seeing to.
It was how they were going to get through those two minutes that was worrying Squigs. He'd never seen such an obviously incompetent bunch of gardeners before. To add to his worries, they, surely a recognizable group, were right under Vila's eye, if she should look up from her current pastime. Squigs shook his head. If he had to try that sort of thing in a wide open grassy field, he was sure they'd both end up on the only thorn in a whole five acres. Yet those two, with their unwelcome floor-show between the cholla and the barrel cactus . . . Well, it was hard not to look. Instead he tried looking at his fellow workers.
Mungo was steering the vast muscarid with its buzzing wings, huge prismatic eyes and whirling blades on its six quivering legs with the nearest approach to competency. If you didn't look at his wavering back-track and bare-cut pieces of earth, that is.
Slugger, mounted on the big flightless bird with its four-foot scythes, looked rightfully terrified. At the moment the bird was sauntering about vaguely . . . in circles in the middle of the lawn.
Huigi was trying to look complacent, and succeeding in looking as though he was having root canal work on his front fangs without the benefit of anesthesia. His hedge trimmer, a thing from a bad LSD trip that included very long teeth, had summarily executed three of the lovingly constructed topiary figures.
Korg, the edger, was having trouble with his mask. He might have more trouble soon because Squigs' Lady-weedeater was not concentrating on her diet, but was sneaking amorously closer to his rear end.
Baron Ashill looked as though either a temper-tantrum or tears were about to follow his attempt to get the smaller flightless bird started. It had sat down and now, with the exception of making occasional disgruntled "brump! uhdududda . . ." noises, it refused to do anything. The baron, in desperation, was attempting to use his swan-rearing experience to force something down its long neck. A few moments ago he'd been kicking it.
The Crum, who had automatically selected for himself the position of highest profile and least risk, stood beneath the girls' tower attempting to restrain his weedeater. That monster was also less interested in pushing weeds into its toothy face, than in getting to Korg. Only it didn't look as if its desires were amorous. Oh well, if only they could survive the next one and a half minutes.
And they would have, if it hadn't been for the total lack of respect for tradition.
A bellow of total outrage. And the sound of pandemonium breaking loose in the courtyard reached the girls as they sprinted into the labyrinth of passages. "Sounds like it worked well, Kate!" yelled Venus as they ran.
The first drops on his hat had made the Crum look up. Why, oh why, hadn't they believed him when he said he was best suited to driving the getaway cart? This was both stupid and dangerous. Oh well, as soon as the attack started he was just going to sing-out loudly so that the girls would know what a hero he'd been, and head for cover. He'd already chosen his safe spot.
Then the contents of an unmentionable pot, closely followed by the container, rained down on him from above.
One of his reactions was to squeeze part of the beast he was supposedly controlling. He had been holding it by the upper thighs. He briefly lost his grip, and in attempting to regain it he grabbed the first part that came to hand. He squeezed really hard. Crum had big strong hands, from a lifetime of heavy lifting of glasses and bar-patrons. That squeeze made the weedeater shriek falsetto.
The poor male weedeater ran totally amuck with a desperate Crum clutching onto one of its feet.
Just then, Baron Ashill, who, in his efforts to get that blasted bird going at all costs, had force-fed it enough high-energy flatulogenic pellets for a normal six weeks of continuous operation, pressed the candle he'd lit to help him see better, into what he fondly imagined was the starter.
Crum, shaking his free fist, and swearing furiously, hurtled across the flowerbeds with his writhing and biting beast half-dragging him along.
The baron's moa gave an anguished and affronted howl as a great belch of flame roared out of its cloaca. It angrily leapt to its feet, and hurtled off after the sprinting baron, occasional flame-thrower bursts from its behind incinerating patches of the carefully layered shrubbery.
The activity was enough to frighten Slugger's mount into attempting the flight its distant ancestors were capable of. Slugger clung on grimly, as it careered through the standard roses, cutting an eight-foot swathe of tumbling thorns and prize blossoms.
Mungo somehow managed, by a feat of sheer strength, to cling to the handles of the fly. Well, one of the two handles. He staggered across the lawn in pirouettes of destruction.
Huigi, with great presence of mind, dropped the hedge-trimmer. Unfortunately, he dropped it into the cucumber frame. This was not at all what the long-fanged thing had been used to. Angry, and spitting bits of broken glass, it flung itself at the gatehouse.
Only Korg and Squigs managed part of their preassigned roles. Things may still not have gone totally awry had the wildly blundering, weedeater-clutching Crum not staggered into the cactus garden.
The weedeaters had been trained to selectively avoid grass. You just kept them right away from your flower-beds. Or your cactus-patch. And anyone who thought hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, hadn't seen what effect Crum's action had on the rusalka Vila Danuba.
With a terrible furious shriek she straightened her legs, and flung Chloe in an unconsidered arc. Leaping to her feet, and screaming with such rage that she quite drowned Chloe's mere screams of agony, she set off after the garden services team, armed with one of their own rakes. Squigs hastily pulled the door closed behind the two of them. He and Korg began running up the stairs.
"Where now?" shouted Kate as they ran down yet another flight of stairs.
"Away from the noise," panted Venus.
If Huigi hadn't kept his head, the others might all have lost theirs. Vila, on her second circuit of the courtyard, had seized a pair of lopping-shears and was rapidly gaining on Mungo, who still hadn't managed to let go of the fly. The vamp transmorphed and fluttered aloft, to blow the summons horn. Diving to avoid an arrow some alert guard had flighted, he hurtled into the gatehouse through the narrow-slit window. Which he had to frantically struggle out of again, as the enraged hedge-trimmer recognized the source of its afflictions. But the hedge-trimmer's mad actions had also severed the drawbridge cords, so the count was able to answer the horn-call by leading the cavalry charge thundering across the bridge.
The final explosion, in which the baron's now demented moa destroyed itself, shattered what shards of organized resistance there might possibly have been.
It also damn near rolled back the cavalry charge.
Vila suddenly realized the enormity and actuality of the situation. She'd just caught the Crum, who had stumbled.
Instead of the summary lopping he deserved, he was flung toward the cactus patch as she raced away, up a narrow stair and along the curtain-wall to the furthest tower which hung over the green, frothing water.
The rusalka was a gambler by nature. And treachery and deception were second nature to her. So, when she heard Squigs yell, "The girls aren't here!" from the tower, she recognized the voice, assimilated the facts, and realized she still had an ace to play.
"You can have the hostages, if you send me Harkness-Smythe," she shouted down.
The hostages in question were somewhere in the bowels of the Schloss Wassergrab. Lost. And far beyond hearing a word of the negotiations above them.
"Of course I'm going. I got your daughters into this mess. It's only right that I should get them out." Squigs, his hands tied, struggled into the small boat, which, as Vila had instructed, they had found moored at the postern gate.
"They won't like it, boyo."
"Tough." He kicked the boat out into the stream.
Vila leapt from the tower into the wild, churning water. Naturally, being half-fish, she was much more at home there than on dry land. She surfaced on the far side of the careering boat and hauled herself onto it. She gave Squigs a look of pure poison before taking the paddle. "Now," she said bitterly, "you're going to suffer. I was just going to kill you. Now I'm going to take you to Lord Strate."
Some people have all the luck. Not only had he landed smack on top of the unfortunate Chloe, but, in trying to choose the least risky place to search, he'd found Kate and Venus. He threw open the door and stood outlined by the light, the perfect image of a hero. Kate breathed, "Oh Crummag! I knew you'd come." He scooped her up in his arms, waiting for the hero's true reward.
"Where's Korg?" demanded Venus, peering round him. "I say, Crummag, you smell like a used cat-box. Do you mind not standing so close?"
"Kate!" "Vee!" Two anxious fathers came bundling in.
Mungo unceremoniously plucked Kate out of the Crum's arms, and away from his pursed lips. He hugged his daughter fiercely, as Huigi and Slugger came in.
"Huigi! SLUGGER!" Kate ran up to the tough old man, and hugged him fiercely. "What are you doing here?"
"Just passin' fru, Katie-girl." Then he wiped his hand across his eyes. Sniffed. And said, in a thick voice, "Wot a lad, eh, Katie." He sighed. "It's a shame you din't see 'im. That's wot I calls a real 'ero."
Kate reached a hand out and shyly touched the odoriferous Crum's arm. She looked up at him with shining eyes. "I know," she said. "I must be the luckiest girl in the whole world."
Slugger was too stunned to speak. As he stood there doing goldfish imitations, the count bustled in. "Ah, there you are, Hu. I see you found your hostages! Pity we didn't get the rusalka, but there won't be a place on Sylvan safe for her. She can't get away from us." He turned to the baron. "I say, their gardens are in an awful state. Ace Garden Services must be a much better bet than this Acne crowd."
Venus was still looking around. "Daddy . . . where is Korg?"
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