On the other hand
For several hours Kate and Squigs slid along the narrow channels through the clattering reeds, toward the Ziggurat visible above the fen-lands to the north-east.
The transition from swamp to city was a gradual and very incomplete process. The winding watercourses became streets. Well, there were floating bee-hive rush huts along the edges. And garbage drifting in the water. The boat-wagon became a wagon-boat, its broad wheels splushing and sloshing across the shallows, and then out onto the mud. The houses became more frequent and started being built on pilings, not on floating islands of reed and rush. Ahead, the vast Ziggurat loomed, dwarfing all else. A thin column of blue-grey smoke curled up from the uppermost tier.
Finally, the piling-built houses became quite closely packed. The marsh-noises of frogs and waterfowl disappeared to be replaced by the croak and bellow of hawkers, and the cackle and occasional shrill shriek of their customers. They took the wagon-boat to what could only be described as a hippodrome, and handed the beasts over to the hippostler. From there they had to walk. Spludging along through the ooze, Squigs began to understand the boots Kate and the other locals wore. His made-in-Taiwan Nike look-alikes were now wet mud-balls.
They climbed the ladder up the pilings to the market place, a chaos of stalls with a bedlam of shouted wares. "Git yer fresh crayfish 'ere!" the salesman threatened Squigs, with a still nipping and extremely fresh crayfish. "Loverly cheeses! Guaranteed two years old," a crone gesticulated with a lump of maggot-twitching white muck, at least three years old, to judge by the smell. "Best melons!" and a slice of delicate pink-ribbed juiciness was thrust under his nose. "Taste! Taste!" "Get a feel of my eels!" bellowed another. They wound on through the assault of colors, smells and noise, among the tattered bright awnings, across to the far edge of the market. There stood a solitary black tent. Space, elsewhere at a premium, was left vacant around it.
Above the closed tent door hung a sign.
Kate grimaced and turned to Squigs. "He thinks he's so damn funny. Remember, any debts that you run up are your own. He's already bled Pa white, paying for the last lot." She pulled aside a fold of the black tent's door, and yelled into the interior "Hey, Huigi! I've brought a customer for you."
"If this is a sex appeal, it's no use coming to me. I already gave at the office," a sleepy, high-pitched voice lisped from the blackness.
"Huh!" Kate snorted. "You should be so lucky. Wake up, you bloody vulture."
She was answered by a sigh from the dark recesses of the tent. "It's the middle of the day, dahling. But come in, if you must. Just keep all that horrible light out."
They pulled aside the door-flap and went into the dim, shadowy interior. Squigs had been expecting to see racks of swords, breastplates and helmets. Instead, there was a large marble slab, mounted on a plinth in the centre of the tent. The walls were lined with racks and racks of bottles and jars.
A small, cadaverous-looking man dressed in black stood rubbing his slim-fingered white hands beside the slab. His face was an almost bleached white, except for his lips, which were thin and very red, outlined by a pencil moustache. He smiled, exposing long white canines. "Why, Miss Kentigern! Come to settle your father's debts? Whata pleasure, my deah." He licked his thin lips, catlike, as he raised his finely carved nostrils, and peered at her from under his heavy eyelids.
Kate started visibly. "Why, Huigi! I didn't know you . . . liked girls."
The vampire, for such he plainly was, sighed again. "I don't, dahling. You know me. I like manly men. The more rugged the better. But times have been so good lately. I'm just not getting any customers. It's these damned poachers. No dragons left for the boys to play with. It's getting so as an honest armorer could starve to death waiting for business."
Kate raised her eyebrows. "I said I'd brought you a customer, but it sounds to me as if you ought to sponsor this one. He reckons he's off to deal with the poachers."
"Tch! Tch!" Huigi clicked his tongue, shaking his head and looking Squigs up and down. "My deah, you know I'd love to . . . but business is business after all. And he looks like a lovely long drink . . . so nice on these hot afternoons."
"Shall I pop him in the ice-bucket for you Huigi, and give him some gin to drink?" asked Kate with an evil grin.
Looking around, Squigs was not too sure they were joking. His eyes had grown accustomed to the gloom, and he could now see that the bottles of murky fluid on the racks all contained organs or limbs. Some of them had been of human origin . . . once.
He decided it was time to take masterful charge of the situation "Er. Um. Just what am I doing here?"
Huigi tittered and stepped over to him. He took Squigs' unresisting right arm and traced his fingertips up it delicately. "You sweet thing! Why do you think you'd come to a 'second-hand' shop?" He tittered again, cocked his head, and lifted his eyebrows archly. "Did you think I just . . . wanted your body?" He sidled up to Squigs, and rubbed his cheek on Squigs' shoulder. Squigs stood frozen for a moment, and then Huigi pulled away abruptly, with a look of surprise on his vampire face.
A University with strong liberal traditions tends to engender a high degree of tolerance for other people's sexual preferences. Among any five friends, one was likely to be gay. Camp mannerisms were a joke. With sudden insight Squigs realized that on the other hand, these draconniers, with their he-man attitude to life, were probably radically homophobic. No wonder the fellow was looking so shocked . . . and wary at the lack of negative reaction to his advances.
When Squigs wasn't dealing with the opposite sex, he had an astute mind. He began to smell a trace of a very substantial rodent. So he made a camp tea-pot spout gesture with his left hand, and replied, in a similar arch tone, "I didn't know you wanted to get so . . . physical about it, dahling. I thought all that you wanted bodies for was chopping up and putting in your ugly little jars, gorgeous."
He had the satisfaction of seeing the vampire's eyes widen abruptly. Squigs smothered a chuckle. Caught the sod in his own trap. "Suppose we cut out the sales technique, and talk business now," Squigs said, reverting to an ordinary voice.
"Well, you are a sharp one," said the vamp, also in normal tones. "First one to call my bluff in ten years. It may be worth sending you after the poachers after all. You're not from Zoar, are you? Not from Sylvan either. Must be Earth . . . or as we in the trade call it, Mud?"
The vamp smiled. "That explains it. And very appropriate that you should be having a go at these poachers. They're definitely a bunch of mudders. Well, come and have a look at the stock. I must warn you that right hands are in very short supply. Like livers, they're often damaged. Means the price is very high."
"Huh!" said Kate. "Funny how if you've lost a left small toe they're always in short supply . . . but if I'd got one to sell you, you've got too many, and the price is way, way down."
Huigi shrugged. "Basic laws of economics, dear. But good right hands really are hard to come by."
He led them to a shelf where hands of various sizes shapes and species hung in jars of cloudy amber fluid. There was indeed a rather limited choice . . . if you wanted the human kind. "I'd advise against Hyperdrac." He pointed to one of the thirty or so vicious, clawed, scale-covered hands, in various sizes and colors. "They're sinistral-dominant, and never very well controlled by a dextral-dominance nervous systems. It can make picking your nose a terminal problem."
Kat snorted impatiently. "Besides, you've got a fair number, and that would bring the price down. What are you asking for the ordinary human hands right now? Say . . . that one there." She pointed to a shapely, long-fingered member in a tall jar.
"A hundred and twenty," said the Vamp coolly. "And the usual pound-per-pound of dragon flesh."
"What! Forget it, Huigi," stuttered Kate, outraged. "That's utterly ridiculous. Anyway he's not a licensed draconnier. What are you suggesting? He should go poaching?"
"A hundred and twenty what?" asked Squigs. If they used gold as a medium of exchange here, he would have no financial difficulties. One of the reasons that the Alchemy department had tried so hard to discourage students with the remotest chance of passing first-year, (with a course that was bizarre, silly, and also extremely demanding) was that they'd solved the old base-metal into gold problem nearly two centuries ago. But you couldn't let everyone in on it. After all, over-abundant gold is next to useless. The department happily contributed the value of about fifty pounds of slightly altered scrap lead to the University fiscus every year.
In exchange for being the only department that ever paid in,and never drew a solitary penny out, the alchemy department was left well and truly alone. Accountants, as Prof Selby had pointed out, are not stupid, despite all the insults heaped on them. They never disturb the geese that lay that type of eggs.
"Pints of blood, my dahling boy," said Huigi. " And about a pound of dragon-flesh. A vamp can't live by blood alone, you know."
It was Squigs' turn to stare wide-eyed at the man. "Are you crazy? I'd be dry ten times over."
The vamp gave an arch little shrug. "Of course, it's hire-purchase, deah boy. The installments and the interest rate are really very reasonable. Naturally . . . I can give you a substantial discount for blood on the barrel-head. But as you say, I don't think you have enough in your body." He looked measuringly at Squigs, and licked his canines with that narrow red tongue.
"Come on, Huigi, pay some attention to business, instead of chattering," said Kate impatiently.
The vampire obligingly paid attention. "How much for that one then?" she demanded, pointing at another jar. The fingers were stubby, and the nails distinctly chewed.
"Make it seventy-five, but only for you, dahling. I've got to eat, you know."
"Look, it's hardly new," said Kate. "What about some kind of reduction for the state it's in?"
"Seventy then. But not a drop less," said Huigi.
"Still far too much! What about that one then?" Kate pointed to yet another hand with rather callused knuckles.
By the time they'd heard the merits of all seven on offer, and argued the price down to a mere thirty-seven pints, Squigs had had enough. "Forget it. I'll do without the damned thing. I'm not donating half a lifetime's hemoglobin for something I can do without."
They both looked at him as if he'd crawled out of a piece of cheese. Finally Kate asked, with the air of someone talking to a small, dim-witted child, "How do you think you're going to pull a bow . . . or wield a sword, against these poachers?"
Squigs shrugged. "It wouldn't make much difference if I had three hands. I barely know which end of a sword cuts. And the only time I tried archery, the bow attacked me. It gave me a black eye. I'm not going to beat anyone with any kind of weapon, I'm afraid. I'll just have to use my brains. And that's not something you're going to sell me."
"Well, actually I do have some in stock . . . guaranteed unused. Ex-Military Intelligence. Or a politician's brain. Did you know that they're genetic aberrations? The mouth and nervous system is actually connected to the liver, instead of the brain. But either I'd have to build an extension on to your head, which makes buying hats a bugger, or I'd have to take out what you've got in your skull," said Huigi with one of his malicious little grins, showing his long white canines.
"And who'd notice if you forgot to put anything at all in afterwards," said Kate sourly. "Come on . . . you. Let's go."
They turned to leave. As they did, Huigi, with a note of desperation in his voice at seeing a sale slip away, said, "Hang on. Look. I, I, um, do have one piece of merchandise I haven't shown you. It's not strictly a human hand, and, well, it has rejected the last two owners. I'd be glad to let it go really cheap. I'd be ashamed to send you out there to face the poachers single-handedly."
Kate sighed. "All right then. Lets see it."
He led them to a back-corner. The jar stood on its own on the shelf, as if despising its fellow limbs and organs. The hand was spider-fingered, with eight long members. The digits were even longer than Squigs' own, and bulged slightly at the knuckles. And it was jet-black. There was a rune-etched silver ring with an empty socket, where the stone had been pried out of it, on the middle finger. As they watched, the fingers moved slowly of their own volition. All but the centre one clenched to form a fist. The middle finger straightened, the ring glowing.
"It didn't ought to be able to do that," said the vamp, disapprovingly, "and you can't get the bloody ring off either." He seemed about to say more, but then shut his mouth in a tight line.
Squigs looked at the gesture made by the severed hand. He could identify with that sort of attitude. "I'll take it," he said decisively. "How much?"
There was a cunning look in the vamp's eyes that should have rung warning bells in Squigs' mind. "Yours for a pint. But no refunds, and no comebacks, see."
Distractedly, Squigs nodded, "Okay."
"Well, it's a deal then. I'll let you have six months same as cash," said Huigi too casually, standing on the open-mouthed Kate's foot. "Come up to the slab . . ."
Somewhere, out in limbo scattered motes of a once powerful intelligence danced in patterns of dark energy. The surviving part, the only surviving part of her physical body had been drawn from the thaumatic fluid. Soon it would start to die if it could not bond to life-image and nutrient-giving and oxygen-giving blood. She'd liked human blood. Flavorful.
In the etherial zone, a place of light and energy and the endless song of the stars, something scratched itself and belched. Whistled shrilly. And said irritably. "Who's a pretty slut then? Weee. Loose woman."
It was true enough. She was as loose as component atoms can be.
But part of her was being attached again.
The hand was sewed on. Incantations, dark spells from Tra were recited. Pipes dripped glowing fluid into Squigs' veins. The darkness of the tent was ripped by actinic high voltage discharges, heavy with the reek of ozone. Then the join was smeared with a vile smelling, sickly-yellow potion. Huigi wrinkled his fine-boned nose, and shook his head. "Sorry. Bloody antiseptics these days."
At last it was all over. He was allowed to sit up. The acupuncture needles were pulled out, and nerve contact began. Squigs suddenly realized he could feel with the strange fingers. They seemed hypersensitive.
"Move the limb please," said Huigi professionally. "Try it out." So Squigs tried. The fingers responded, bending double-jointedly back to touch the wrist, and then writhing snakelike, twisting around each other. Then the hand reached out and goosed Kate. More by luck than judgment, Squigs' face only got the first slap. That alone was enough to make his head ring, as he tried desperately to apologize.
Huigi was laughing enough to seriously endanger himself. He'd bent forward to slap his knees. Suddenly, the black hand reached out and grabbed the vampire's neck, and began to throttle him. It was strange. Squigs could see that the vamp's throat was smooth white skin, but to the alien fingers, it felt as if it were covered in short, soft fur.
Then, as the white face began to turn blue, and the vamp's eyes bulged, Squigs told the hand to stop.
And it did.
"The damn thing's got a mind of its own, Huigi. No wonder you were so keen to get rid of it," said Kate, staring at the black hand.
"It's all right," said Squigs, in a voice of unconvincing reassurance. "I've got it under control now."
The vampire massaged his neck, now keeping a careful distance. "That's what they always say," he muttered in a bruised-throat voice. "But, Miss Kentigern, you ain't seen nothin' yet."
Squigs tried moving the fingers again. They obeyed. They were just more mobile and sensitive than he was used to. And there were more of them. But he had a right hand again! He held it out in triumph.
A pale nimbus danced above the black hand. The air grew abruptly colder. The flames of the black candles shrunk to pin-prick size. Squigs felt the claws dig into the back of his new hand. The semi-transparent blue and red parrot that had materialized there said, "Awk! Polly wants a piece of ectoplasm!"
Squigs stared the apparition, the hairs on the back of his neck crawling. Alchemistical research had led him to discover that many of the things pooh-poohed by establishment science were real. . . . There had been some work on morphic resonance. But the reality was different to reading about it a dry tome. The dread specter opened its beak and belched, thunderously. As a cure for fear it worked remarkably well.
The vampire was rolling about on the floor laughing. The ghostly parrot turned a beady ghostly eye on him. "Who's a pretty boy then? Awk!" it asked and cracked its beak like a pistol shot. Then abruptly it vanished.
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