The way the cookie crumbles

In limbo, the scattered energies of the dead woman stirred and drew together, further as her hand quickened from the suspended half-life. He was stronger willed than she'd realized, when she'd set these things in motion. Still, he was unlikely to be aware of the meaning or power of those runes on the ring. Now, if only the elementals could be returned to the ring, she would be able to enhance his senses . . . and control at least her old hand more easily.

"A haunted hand. And haunted by a blasted house-pet." Kate shook her head in disbelief. "You know, that Huigi is a real bastard. Dad would have killed him if he'd done this to him, and stuff the fact that he's the only armorer in the marshes of Senaputt."

Squigs shrugged. He didn't dare mention that he rather liked parrots, not now that she was actually talking to him. "At least it's a hand," he said neutrally.

She looked at him and shook her head yet again. "Well. Thank goodness you're not a draconnier. No draconnier worth his salt could bear being made a laughing-stock like that. It's all right for someone like you, I suppose," she said, not noticing the gritted teeth, or guessing his determination to prove that he'd got a bargain, complete with a free parrot that you didn't even have to feed. "Still, being a total wet must have some advantages. At least he didn't try and paw you, like he always does to Pa. He didn't even offer to give you a discount for spending the night with him."

Squigs sighed. "He's not really gay, you know."

"You're telling me. He's about as funny as an undertaker," she shuddered.

Obviously PC speech hadn't made it here. "No . . . I mean he's not queer."

"Great Ziklevieson on a stick! You do talk a lot of drivel. If there is anything queerer than that spooky set-up of his . . ."

"No! Look what I am trying to say is well, um, gays, um, er, queers, um, prefer male lovers."

"So I'm a gay queer?" she asked, dangerously.

Squigs lifted his eyes to heaven. Took a deep breath. "All I was trying to say was that Huigi knows he is the only armorer around . . . so nobody can do him any harm. By pawing your Dad, and the other draconniers, he gets them off-balance. I'll bet most of them agree to his ridiculous prices just to get away from him."

His companion was silent for some time. At last she said, reluctantly. "You know, you could even be right. They can't wait to get out of there. And they all refuse to go alone. So, okay, sometimes you aren't quite as stupid as you look. Come on, let's pop in to the Green Monkey, and get some food before we head back home."

Riding high on this small victory, Squigs agreed cheerfully. He was frequently to regret this.


Green Monkey Tavern, Bar 'n Grill.

Rite of admission reserved.

Zikaday special char-grilled 'gator tail,

*** Live Entertainment ***

Exotick Dancers!!

was the sort of place that Squigs had always been intensely curious about. And never quite stupid enough to venture into before.

It was plain that Kate had. She shoved and elbowed her way to a table near the back. There was no way to get a place near the podium. The dancer with the major underwear crisis, and the serious forward gravitational imbalance, had a hypnotized beefy crowd cramming into all the available space. But, by the simple expedient of tipping the sleeping mountain of a drunk off the bench, they had a table in the far corner.

The waiter, a scar-faced, two hundred and thirty pound hulk in a holey vest and a heavy layer of body hair, grinned broken-toothedly at her. "Mornin', Kate. 'Ows tricks wiv yer then? 'Aving the usual, I s'pose? I carn't tempt yer to a bit o' green monkey on a stick?"

She smiled at him. "It could be better, Slugger. No bloody green monkey, thank you. I'll stick to the ribs. Better make it the usual, twice. Pa's got me shepherding this molly around," she said, pointing vaguely at Squigs, in a manner that said just how much she was enjoying it.

The waiter chuckled, and said in a tone of disbelief. "Yeah? Wot's your Dad want 'im for Katie? Bait?"

Kate grinned wryly. "What's going to take something like him? Now, Slugger, get along to the kitchen and grab our grub, do. When bare-ass finishes up there, the whole mob will want chow."

Their food arrived with amazing speed. Squigs found a huge earthenware platter being slapped down in front of him. It was filled from edge to substantial edge with a rack of grilled ribs, the fat still hissing and bubbling in the honey and green peppercorn glaze. There were a generous-sized couple of double-yolked fried eggs for extra cholesterol. All the remaining space was filled with a sea of French fries, from whose golden sides the salt crystals gleamed in the greasy sheen. A plate of chili beans on the side, and a foaming tankard completed the meal. None of this vegetable rubbish or salad abomination, or silly bits of greenery polluting the plate. Kate eyed the array critically. "Where's the garlic sauce then, Slugger?"

"Sorry, Katie-girl. 'Ave it 'ere in a minnut. 'Ope you don't mind," he said with a thumb at the wide-eyed Squigs, "but I brought 'im a ladies portion too."

He went in behind the bar and disappeared into the smoke and bedlam of the kitchen. A few seconds later he emerged again with a blue bowl from which the steaming waves of garlic overwhelmed even the other smells of beer, sweat, and smoke in the bar. "'Ere you are. Your favrit. Garlic sauce wiv extra chili! Enjoy."

Latterly, as a grad student of an independently wealthy faculty, Squigs had begun to develop taste-buds, things which he had found wise to dispense with at boarding-school. This morning's food had been eaten, yes, but with temerity. He had then still been rather queasy after the alcoholic excesses of the night before. Now, Squigs found he was hungry, and although the food smelt powerful enough to be independent . . . it also smelt mouth-wateringly good. And it was pleasant to have two hands to use, even if the right hand did seem to have its own ideas about what it wanted to do with the knife. Even the beer, cold, bitter and crisp, tasted great. Squigs would have said he was having the time of his life, you know, good food, good beer, a pretty girl (even if she was ignoring him), and an eyeball-popping view of a stunning, and by now barely dressed, dancer. It was the dancer's last garment and the garlic sauce with extra chili that brought about his downfall.

He'd decided to brave the stuff. He stuck a spoon in it. The metal hissed and curled slightly. Just then a cacophony of wolf-whistles broke out. So he looked at the stage, where that last cheeky item of lace and feathers was being twitched downwards. He didn't really notice how much of a huge ladle-full he'd put onto that rib.

He took an unwary bite. Blue flames whoomphed into existence in his mouth, and danced a wild hornpipe, stomping across the young, innocent taste-buds. The rampant, naked garlic reveled in the ring of teeth, stopping only for a quick black mass on his tongue, at which his poor epiglottis was ceremonially strangled and burned in the chili fire.

Great beads of sweat stood out from Squigs' cheeks and forehead. He desperately reached for his beer, emitting a small, strangled "awk" sound.

The lights dimmed as the dancer dropped the feathers and lace. Perhaps the audience was too focused to notice, or presumed it was part of the show. They certainly didn't notice the drop in temperature, caused by the shade's appearance. The spectral parrot fluttered off Squigs' new hand, and over to an empty bowl on the bar, where it pecked, presumably at the salty ghosts of departed peanuts.

"Make it go away!" Kate hissed in a fierce whisper through clenched teeth.

Squigs shook his head helplessly. "I don't know how to."

The parrot, apparently satisfied, flew back and landed on Squigs' shoulder. Strange. He could feel it with his black right hand, but not on his shoulder. It burped. And then gave an express-train whistle, right in his ear. Squigs jumped nearly a foot. Everyone in the place must be looking at him.

But no. Miss T. I. Tillation had reappeared on stage from behind her screen, to the clapping, whistling and cat-calling audience, wearing nothing but her large fan to take her bow. Kate was studiously ignoring him, doing a perfect imitation of sitting at another table, in another tavern, from which he was conspicuously absent.

The crowds surged to the bar, clamoring for beer. The average individual weighed at least twice what Squigs did, and the ink used in all those tattoos would have been sufficient to write a thesis with. One fellow in particular stuck out above the rest. He stood about six foot six tall, and about five feet across the bulging shoulders. He had arms like sacks of grapefruit. A great blond mane flowed down onto his back.

The parrot took one look at him, and said, at the top of its very penetrating voice, "Awk! Blondie! You're a total wanker!"

The silence spread out across the bar like jelly. The blond giant turned slowly. He had a clean-cut handsome face, with a strong jaw and clear blue eyes under a high, tanned brow. He didn't look as if he had a sense of humor. The blue eyes were staring straight at Squigs.

Squigs felt the blood drain from his face. "It wasn't me!" he said, his voice rising to a treble squeak. "It was the parrot!" He looked sideways nervously. The glowing spectral blue-and-red bird had vanished from his shoulder.

A whisper ran around the now silenced bar. "That's Crummag the Barbarian that the wimp . . ."

Crummag walked across the short distance of saw-dusted floor with a slow, swaying, wrestler's walk. His knuckles didn't quite drag on the floor. He took Squigs by the scruff of the neck in one huge hand and picked him up out of his chair. It was his habit to raise offenders to eye-level, before chastising them gently by turning their faces into pulp. Only this offender was a lot taller than he was. And although Squigs' left hand was desperately and ineffectually flapping at Crummag's chest, the right . . .

The barbarian terror of the Selig plain, and Scourge of Santara, went "Arrch." His blue eyes widened.

"Maybe," he said, his fine baritone shifting an octave upwards, "there really was a parrot."

"I can explain everything," said Squigs quickly, reflecting on the ineffable wisdom that, when you have someone by the balls, their hearts and minds will always follow. "Look, why don't we have a drink or something?" He noticed that the stranglehold on his collar had already eased. "Let's sit down and get out of this squeeze." The black hand twitched, and Squigs had the satisfaction of seeing beads of sweat stand out on Crummag's forehead.

"Yeah. Let's sit down. We're embarrassing the lady."

Squigs let go and stepped back. Crummag flashed Kate his dazzling even-toothed grin.

She looked at him with wide, worshipful eyes. "You must really be the great Crummag! No one else could be so generous and gentle." She turned on Squigs. "You don't know how lucky you are! Most of the guys in here would have turned you into mincemeat. Idiot."

"My dear," said Crummag, "I could hardly indulge in a vulgar brawl in front of a beautiful young lady! Besides, it wouldn't have been a fair fight. He's half my size."

Squigs gaped.

"Oh, Crummag!" sighed Kate, stars in her worshipful eyes. "I've been looking for a really noble hero. I'm so thrilled I've found you."

He smiled again, all perfect teeth. His eyes took in the details. "That's me, Crummag the Barbarian, Scourge of Santara. Terror of the Selig Plain, at your service. Why don't we . . . you and I, that is . . . go off somewhere nice and quiet, and discuss the service you might need?"

"Oh, yes!" she breathed. "You . . . Skellington. I'll see you back at the wagon."

"Er, um," flapped Squigs. "D . . . don't you think we ought to get back to your father? I mean, it's a long way, and he'll be getting worried."

Crummag smiled condescendingly at him. "You heard the lady. Now, beat it. Run along, before I forget I'm such a gentleman." He stretched out a ham-sized hand and took Squigs by the black hand. "Here. Let me help you up." The Barbarian plainly intended to extract some revenge for the earlier squeeze.

But Crummag had under-estimated that hand. It was putting the squeeze on him instead. And it was taking unfair advantage of having three extra fingers. It had his pinky trapped and was forcing the first phalange back towards painful dislocation. For a moment they stood there, Squigs slowly straightening his lanky form as the parrot reappeared on his shoulder. "Awk! Blondie! You're still a total wanker!"

"I think," said Squigs, "now that you see the parrot, we should shake hands. Are you sure you don't think it would be a much better idea to come and hear from Kate's father why they need a hero ?"

Kate flashed him a look of pure annoyance. "No!"

From Crummag's right hand came an alarming crack. "Ugh! Yes! I, I quite agree."

"Right now?" asked Squigs meaningfully.

Crummag's eyes were going squiffy. "Uh! Yes, of course."

"Good. I'm glad you're going to do the right and gentlemanly thing," said Squigs, letting off some pressure. "By the way, what did you say your name was?"

"Ur. Crummag the Barbarian."

"Squigs Harkness-Smythe. Mind if I call you Crum?" The hand tightened again.

Crummag's reply became a swallowed, "Yerss! Uh, suuure!"

"By the way, this is Kate . . . Kentigern." The effect of the surname on the blond was distinctly one of alarm. Squigs decided to follow it up. "Her father is a real gentleman. He's also the biggest man I ever met . . . Crum." Squigs let go, largely because Kate had just kicked his shins.

Kate stood up, missing the sight of Crummag trying to wring blood back into his pulped hand. She gave Squigs a look which promised plain and fancy murder.

"So you're the famous Mungo Kentigern's daughter, are you?" said Crummag, more wary now. "Well, I'm honored to be of service."

"Yeah. Well, I could have skipped the damn introduction," said Kate, looking sourly at Squigs, as she left a few coins on the table. They headed for the door.

"After you, ma'am," said the smooth-talking barbarian, shoving Squigs out of the way.

Slugger was standing near the door. As the blond barbarian cut out of the door, the waiter gave Squigs a thumbs-up. "Pity you didn't pull 'is cods right off when you 'ad the chance, boy," he said quietly. "You keeps an eye on Miss Kate, see. Watch that Crum the Bum. Finks e's a smooth mover wiv the girls 'e does. Na, get arter 'im. I'll see yer gets a man's portion next time yer comes in. Wiv real chili."

Squigs thought real chili would probably put hairs on his chest. Or at least fungal mycelium. The sort that usually grows in graves. But he scurried after Kate and the Crum none the less. Kate was laughing. A happy "I-think-your-stupid-jokes-are-wonderful" laugh. Squigs gritted his teeth. This place'd have them gritted down to stumps at the rate he was going. Well, if he couldn't have her, then he'd at least make damn sure that that triangular-bodied blond pea-brain couldn't either. He knew just what the pea-brain had in mind, principally because it had been in his own mind all morning. They said cold showers and lots of exercise helped. He'd have to try them.

In the meanwhile he'd be a gooseberry, although he doubted if anyone would thank him for it. At least the job, despite its frustrations, was not without its own satisfaction. Still, if it hadn't been for the new hand's inordinate speed and strength he'd have been tipped into the water a couple of times by two separate people who very much wished him to be somewhere a lot further away. At least he kept them to only talking.

Talk, talk, talk. That was all they ever did at these meetings these days. Dressed up in hoods and yattered. Venus Ashill was irritated by it all. She was here out of loyalty. The cause had been her Mother's raison d'etre.

At the moment a buxom woman was calling for something to be done about the abuse in taverns. "It is a problem on, 'ow do you say in English? Le weekend. The men 'ave 'ad too much to drink . . ."

Venus Ashill let her mind wander. There was no point in listening. The revolutionary council would bicker and squabble for hours and then pass another meaningless vote on some issue. She sighed. If it wasn't for Long Ash and Papa she'd show them. Do something. Revolutions were built on blood, not talk.

But . . . there was Papa. He'd never manage without her. Not now. Not with his problem. And there was Long Ash. Back at school she'd thought she'd make a fortune it needed, somehow. Later, she'd reluctantly realized she might have to marry one instead. The thought didn't appeal, but she'd never let squeamishness stop her. She was an Ashill, after all!

When she got back to Long Ash in the small hours of the morning there was a rude surprise waiting for her.

Scrote. The wrinkled old man was standing at the swan-mews, wringing his hands. "It's the master, Missy. He's bloody packed up his questing gear and gone. He left this for you."

The note read:

My dear Vee,

Had a problem with West wing. Going to have to try and raise some money. Take care of the swans until I get back. Leda's foot is healing nicely.



"Where did he go, Scrote?"

The wrinkled swanherd threw up his hands. "Missy, I'd guess Zikamaddy. It's closest. Or Zikdoonvarna."

Venus took a deep breath. "Well, I'd best go and find him."

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