(Author’s Note: This is the third in a four volume high fantasy series set in the lowest of places: a gigantic public restroom. I highly recommend checking them out in order if you’re interested. Here is the first, and here the second.)
(reading time: 1 hour, 28 minutes) (reading time for entire novel: 11 hours, 8 minutes)
Blaine Arcade (in a manner of speaking)
The Third of Four Bathroom Breaks
The bathroom of a hotel room is a funny thing. It’s much more comfortable than a public one, with attention to decoration and cleanliness. It mimics what I would call a ‘real’ bathroom, which is to say one that is truly private and owned by those most familiar with it. Hotel beds are often rife with suspicions. Did they change the sheets? How many times has this room had a case of bedbugs? Not the bathroom. Even though it is rented it feels much safer. The germs that we are so afraid carry the personality traits as well as the sexual and financial histories of the last occupant don’t have any fibers to hide in thanks to the purity of tile and treated water.
For a brief time I even worked hotel housekeeping at a star-counting resort. I can confirm that the bathroom sees the most attention, for even single loose hairs stand out against its surfaces. In my time I found some strange things and messes in guest bathrooms. Health devices I couldn’t identify. Peanut butter smeared on mirrors. It was long after I was working, while I was merely a guest in a different hotel, that I found the one that stood out the most.
First you must know that this was the third time, of four, that I found such a thing. Each time they were found in a bathroom, though the first two were public facilities. Yes, I am a stranger attempting to show you something I found in a public restroom, practically shoving your face into it, but know that they are stories. With intervals of years between each, I’ve been exposed to novels written across stall walls and toilets as graffiti. I’ve spent hours photographing and recording each one.
The first was called Captain Rob Fights. It introduced me to the fantasy world of Porce: a public bathroom populated by minuscule peoples and creatures. We followed a crew of sink pirates across their adventures. We learned that Porce has been long empty of beings our size and that all of our fixtures are simply landmarks to them. After the first one I thought I’d merely stumbled across a very unusual art installation.
Then it happened to me again. In a different bathroom, in a different state, I found a second novel called Captain Rob Sinks. It followed that same crew of pirates as their ship sank and they struggled against numerous forces to regain stability. While recording that one I came to believe these stories as true, and that they simply described events yet to come. Our world is doomed, but at least one of its bathrooms isn’t. I believed the second one because I was attacked by an unexplained force when I was nearly finished. The water in the toilet became animated, destroyed the narrative, and tried to drown me. I was saved only by the timely arrival of a janitor.
I wasn’t expecting it the third time, given the shift in the bathroom’s tone. I wasn’t even in the United States anymore. I was living in Germany at the time with my English teacher wife. She had a week off during the summer and my parents had flown over for a visit to scale mountains they couldn’t pronounce and eat food that was more of a mouthful on the menu. We were staying in Garmisch in preparation for Zugspitze. My parents had already turned in for the night and my wife was off doing one of two things: wandering about the hotel or looking at cuckoo clocks in town. I never bothered to ask her exactly which, for she hates describing the precise usage of her free time to others. I’ve grown closer to this habit as well, but mostly for the reasons I’m describing.
I was left alone on the bed with a computer in my lap. The hotel was an old building overseen by a tall man with wispy white hair and round spectacles. He was extremely attentive, showing up in the background when we checked in, when we had dinner, and at the free breakfast. His presence was like a more respectable version of the internet ghost stories photoshopped into old pictures. He spent so much of his life in that hotel that he likely sensed what the occupants were doing at any given time. I wonder if he was confused or frightened when he sensed the activity in my bathroom.
There came the flutter of a shower curtain. At first I thought it was simply the air conditioning kicking on, but the sound came twice more, forcing me to set my computer aside and investigate. The story was there, complete, as soon as I stepped inside. With the other two there had always been the possibility that a human had sat in the stalls and painstakingly written out every word. Not so any longer, as I had used that bathroom just two hours prior and seen nothing.
This third novel was written across the marble countertop, dipped into the sink, meandered across the tile in rivers, splashed into the bathtub, and then climbed the curtain, with the finale wrapping around the shower rod. My sense of duty kicked in. I retrieved my laptop and camera and immediately went to work making a legible digital copy. There wouldn’t be time to type any chapters out, as my wife would surely be back in less than three hours. I eventually told her of all this, but at that point I kept my bathroom fantasies to myself.
It was still an arduous task that had me on my hands and knees. I’m extremely bony, so my knees were smarting against the tile in minutes. I didn’t dare put a towel between them thanks to the risk of smudging. I just reminded myself that the tale under my lens was true and that the characters within were going to suffer far more than sore knees.
“Who are you?” I whispered to the bathroom when I was more than an hour into the effort. I already knew who Captain Rob was. I knew his crew. I knew their enemies. What I also knew was that none of them had produced these stories for me. They included thoughts, but not general emotions. I had insight into the characters’ minds, but not the author’s. Nobody answered me. I went about my business, assuming they’d gone as soon as the last word was down.
They hadn’t. They watched over me, silently, because something else did as well. The door was closed and locked in case my wife returned. She would’ve asked an awkward question if I came out of the bathroom with my computer after forty-five silent minutes, but I could suffer those slings and arrows. There was a knock on the door. My spine went rigid, causing me to fall over from my hunched position. I stared at the bathroom door, breath held, utterly confounded by the sudden flood of fear. It was just a knock; what was I so scared of?
“Room service,” a voice from outside said. I didn’t order any room service. Standing as quietly as possible, I tapped the lock on the door to make sure I was secure. The knock came again, louder and longer. “Room service?” Did they sound annoyed? There was something under the voice, some kind of heat that turned my panic into dread. It sounded like picking up a random stone and finding a fire burning in a hole under it.
My mind took me back to the public bathroom of the last novel, where the waters attacked me and ate the story. A few ideas clicked into place. This story was in my hotel room because it was safer from prying eyes and interruptions. Whoever fed these to me was trying to protect me from this other force.
Though the room service voice didn’t return, things were far from finished. The bathroom had no windows, but I could hear the weather outside changing regardless. There was a crack of thunder where there had been clear skies when I went in. Rain poured in sheets. I heard a window fly open, but I just knew I couldn’t leave to address the rain blowing in, perhaps getting all over our open suitcases.
There was only one chapter left to document when there was another knock at the door. It was a different voice, but it had to be the same entity. It sounded female this time, but that low heat was still there. They couldn’t scrub that tone away with their trickery.
“Housekeeping.” Again, I worked housekeeping; they don’t usually try to clean the room in the evening. I’m not built for that kind of tension, so I nearly shouted at them to leave. There was little chance that a good yell would scare them off. “Housekeeping.” The words were tighter, as if they were just as frustrated. With my ear against the bathroom door, I heard something slip under the room’s door: the slide of a stiff piece of paper.
The shower dripped once. Exactly once in the entire time I’d been documenting. It was a message from my protector. I jumped in the shower. After a moment’s though I snatched my computer and camera off the floor and brought them into the tub with me. I pulled the shower curtain all the way across, slowly enough that it stayed silent. There was nothing to do after that but hold my breath and wait.
The piece of paper was on the move; I heard it sliding across the carpet. It checked every corner several times, the way a robotic vacuum might. When its examination of the room was complete it slid itself under the bathroom door. Perhaps I should’ve blocked the bottom with a towel, but surely that would’ve been more suspicious?
I still had no idea what the thing was, but I panicked when I realized it would see the novel written across the tile. That was when I looked down and saw the strange bath I stood in. I was up to my ankles in words. Captain Rob Robs had flowed, moving itself until every word was in the tub with me. I silently swirled one ankle; similes rippled around it. My computer was barely visible under the story’s surface.
My attention was pulled back by a flicking sound, like someone tossing a note card against a wall. The papery thing tried to propel itself into the tub, but it didn’t have the power. As a grown man hiding from what at its thickest could only be a pamphlet, my curiosity overrode my fear. I pulled back the edge of the curtain with one finger, just to steal a glance with my left eye. The thing throwing itself against the side of the tub was a ‘do not disturb’ sign. Black lettering on cream paper. None of the cozy style you would expect from such a hotel. It gave up and laid flat on the tile, revealing its most horrifying feature.
Right in the hole, where it would normally be hung from a doorknob, there was an eye. Its pupil darted back and forth as it scanned the bathroom. In appearance it was somewhere between the porthole of a giant squid and a ripped sheet of colorful tissue paper. There was nothing like it ever mentioned in the Captain Rob books, so it was something new just for me and my protector to deal with. My eyes didn’t linger to see if they could find a hint of an expression; I pulled back behind the curtain and held my breath again until its search was complete.
The sign inserted itself back under both doors. I heard nothing more, not even footsteps walking away. I was only certain the threat was gone when waves formed in the words of the tub, spilling the narrative back onto the floor, toilet, and the outside of the curtain. The last chapter made its way into my hard drive. My wife entered the room just as I exited the bath. She saw the flung open window, the bed wet from the sudden violent storm, and me standing there with my computer.
“What were you doing in there?” she asked.
“It’s a long story,” I answered. And so it is. You’re about to read it. At this point the background information for the world of Porce and the stories of Rob and company have become so complex that I don’t feel it appropriate to reiterate as I did with the last bathroom break. Instead I will direct you to this small additional text: Porce Compendium. It can be used as a refresher for all things Porce in case you forget the exact nature of a god, beast, or process in our great trek across the stalls.
I will provide two things. First is this little chart with the various units of measurement the folk of Porce use (considered from their scale):
Drip – one second
Drop – one hour
Rinse – ten days
Wash – one hundred days
Rest – one thousand days
Bubble – one inch
Foam – ten inches
Lather – one mile or kilometer
Flake – one ounce
Chip – one pound
Bar – one hundred pounds
Case – one thousand pounds
Second is a map of the bathroom world itself, just to give you a sense of how it’s all arranged:
The drain of Rinlatour was nearly overcome on all sides with roaring waterfalls. The fresh frigid water poured over carved and natural stone alike, disappearing into a blackness lathers long. There were many reasons the incomparable tower city had to rise above the waters of Slick Rin Cliff’s Draining Sea, and the ceaseless noise was one of them.
Civilization stopped when conversation became impossible over the sound. Even the most destitute, often the tilefolk, lightfolk, and gravefolk, refused to descend that far. Even the insane didn’t bother, as they couldn’t hear their own inane rambling over the currents. There was, however, one who thought the drain suited him just fine: Captain Kilrobin Ordr.
The man was a former pirate, now just a thief since he had no ship, who took his sleep in a hovel of his own making deep in the drain. Its roof was a circular tented arrangement of waterproof serpont skins, its walls simply chunks of gray stone he had broken into rough brick shapes. The cold wind of the night and the mist of the falls had no trouble penetrating its many holes and cracks. Neither did the roar, which was even powerful enough to drown out the old pirate’s snoring, no small task considering his rudder-sized nose.
The florent was on, as of a drop ago, so the day had gotten going without him; he was still bundled up in six colorful scaly blankets. Two emerald claws ripped all the way through when he stretched. They were the latest symptoms of the illness that had turned his bones into precious gems. Long had his teeth been that way, but it was only in the last wash that his finger and toenails grew from clear to sparkling mossy green. They had also become extremely difficult to cut, now requiring the hedge clippers leaned up against the wall.
There was no need for him to rise with the florent if he didn’t feel like it. His workplace was the gutter, and it was a long way up just to get there. Most of its activity was reserved for the dead of night anyway. Something did seem to want him up; there was an affectionate nudge against his chest. The pirate snorted and swatted it away. It returned a little stronger than before. Something delicate tickled at his brown beard and up to his glossy scalp. He put out his arm to discourage it.
“Be gone whoever you are,” he grumble-yawned. Something closed around his extended hand with a snap. Rob bolted up and opened his eyes to see a giant serpont, easily twenty foams long, with its mouth closed around his arm. The legless creature’s eyes were rolled back into its head as it tried to suck the pirate down its gullet. “Pissing worm!” He bashed it between the eyes, forcing it to recoil to the ceiling and drag him out of bed. They both collided with the beams and he skins holding them together.
The holes in his walls weren’t quite wide enough for a creature of such girth, but there was plenty of space between those roof skins. The bubble-eyed beast thought it would just drop in and have him for a morning snack. Rob stuck out his thumb, tipped in a spiraling emerald nail, and jabbed it into one of the serpont’s eyes. It popped the protective skin bubble and went right into the pupil. It relinquished its grip on him and retracted out of the roof. This might’ve made for a painful landing, but Rob bonepicked his way down, landing like a confident wolptinger.
The shirtless man, silver hairs descending down the side of his ears, stormed out of his hovel and kicked at the serpont before it could slither back into the basin. The beast hissed as it flopped into the water and scattered its brethren. Several more amphibious heads rose from the roiling tumult. The goggle-eyed animals stared at the destitute man on his little stone lip, wondering why he didn’t just give himself up. All other folk that came that far down simply threw themselves in. It was if he acknowledged he was dead but saw no reason he couldn’t keep moving and yelling.
“Nice try you overgrown shoelaces!” he barked at them, unafraid of their size or numbers. They’d been around since the first day he climbed out of the darkness below, watching over his shoulder while he carted stones no ordinary man could carry. “I’ll see you tomorrow.” The beasts dove back into the froth and swam off in search of easier prey.
The man rubbed his eyes and then turned them up. Incomparable columns of stone rose and converged, but the height was so great that numerous birds flew about under the dome, including a few diseased stars. Their glow throbbed with every beat of their hearts. He’d seen enough lumasol at the end of their lives to know what was coming. Their deaths used to be a lovely source of extra income. A star fallen into the sea could be fished out, chopped up into a hundred different valuables, and sold.
The former captain remembered the girl Pearlen Lustr: once a member of his crew. She was always the best diver, and even with her poor eyesight it was impossible to miss the bluish glow of lumasol feathers on the sinkbed. He bathed in the memories a moment longer, recalling one such salvage where most of the crew had worn a brighted feather in their hats for the day. His closest friends and associates had all participated: his first mate and thirty-second carnal mate Teal Powdr, his brash and buoyant second mate Dawn Shockr, his musician Herc Monickr, his nervous ice master Manathan Shuckr, his nephew Roary…
They were all back in Third Sink last he’d heard. Most of them didn’t even know their captain lived after their disastrous sinking and separation nearly half a rest ago. Teal knew. Roary knew. He’d asked for their secrecy because he couldn’t bear the shame. He couldn’t bear it in Third Sink anyway. Rinlatour was a different story. The shame was so reliable in the bergfolk city. He had standardized collections of shame regarding his race and profession; there was no need to ever think about the murky kind stuck on the bottom of his shoes, between his teeth, and at the tip of his bonepicker’s sword.
In looking up the pirate tried to stare through the ceiling. He listed all the layers of Rinlatour in his head. Layers to this rin cake: our roomy drain, the bottom crust, the artisanal spread, the military wafer, the cream filling, and the sugar on top. Back to the crust today, to see what crumbs we can hold onto. He reached deep into his pockets and turned them inside out. Empty except for a few emerald nail trimmings. Excellent. His last day of work had proven completely fruitless after the tossing and scraping of a night’s sleep. His lucky streak continued.
He poured out the day to the best of his ability, but he’d always been terrible at wasting time. The first few drops were spent practicing his bonepicking on the slippery curved surfaces surrounding the drain. In his time there he’d become quite adept at treating a skin of water like a solid surface, using his picking to skate across it for several drips without sinking. If he judged the tops of the falls correctly he could surf to their very edge and then bonepick his way back to safety. It was exceedingly dangerous, especially with the occasional serpont, itself wrapped safely around a moored sunken object, striking at him.
Rob felt close to invincible in the drain. He’d fought hard to escape the underworld of the Pipes, but when he looked back down to its darkness he found a sparkle of sentiment at the bottom. It was a quiet place where time only passed in certain ways. It was a shame it was so full of monsters of its own: ones far more formidable than the serponts.
When he was finished picking he returned to his hovel to read from pilfered books, take his time with grooming, and write letters to folk he would call colleagues even as they called him a distraction. He no longer had a laboratory to experiment on plunder, but he could at least write for updates on the scientific literature. After that he spent a drop trying to trim his nails. He’d given up on looking respectable, so he was fine cutting them to intimidating triangular points. For the longest time he had painted his emerald teeth to hide them, but no more. The other pests burrowing in the bottom crust admired the sight of them like a crown upon his head. His smile made an excellent distraction so his companions could move in from behind and snatch wallets and jewelry.
Once the letters were written and sealed, it was again time to unite with those companions for a stroll through the bottom crust. He threw on his best clothes: an outfit he would not have been caught dead in a rest prior. As a captain he had struck a most imposing image with his long dark gloves, thick, furry, green cape, and the two bonepicking scabbards on his belt. Now he had no funds for fancy capes. He wore no gloves to show off his new claws. He wore a simple tan shirt with tile buttons, leaving the top two undone so his chest hair could spill out. He rolled up the sleeves to let folk know he hid nothing and was quite a hard worker.
The journey out of the drain involved several bonepicking leaps and a climb up a staked serpont skin nearly thirty foams long. From there he could emerge out of a rusted sewer grate in the bottom crust. The process of emerging involved crawling as well, for the crust almost always had layers of topa or bropato covering its streets. The pirate respected the tradition enough to crawl like an under-rug bug to its edge rather than simply slice through.
Rinlatour was the greatest city of Porce, but it was built and forever owned by the noble bloodline of a royal flush. That meant the upper crust was always bergfolk and the bottom was always the other folk. With so many lightfolk and tilefolk concentrated in the poor seedy neighborhoods at the bottom, there was also a concentration of homesickness and similar sentiments. The former nomads and folk of the World Floor greatly missed the comforts of bropato and topa.
The bergfolk were traditionally of the toils and their seas; they were fonder of stone and ice than paper that turned into soggy mush when wet. So such materials concentrated in the lowest homes, if you didn’t count the Captain’s finely nasty hovel as a home. The small buildings of the bottom crust had walls of bropato, curtains of topa, tiny paper gliders passing written messages between windows, paperboard over the streets, and children running around drawing on all of it with charcoal and colored crumbling wax.
“Oi! Mister Robin!” one such child shouted to him as he crossed their path. Rob stopped and looked at the little tilefolk girl. She and her friends were busy drawing a monster on the papered side of her house. He smiled at first, but it faded when he got a good look at their creation. The doodled beast walked on folk legs and reached out with folk arms, but its head was a swollen bubbling glob of brown. One tiny yellow eye, off-center, glared at its fleeing doodle prey. A slash overflowing with sickle teeth crossed the whole of its head.
“What are you drawing?” the pirate asked.
“A monster I seen,” the little girl said, pulling down her bottom lip with both hands and gnashing her teeth. She hasn’t seen what we have. Surely not. “Needs a finishing touch. You got monster claws Mr. Robin. Put a few good scratches where his hands is; that way it looks like he’s coming to life!” The children growled and giggled.
“Stand back then,” the pirate warned. He bonepicked dramatically, dragging his feet across the bropato without lifting them. His body spun twice before he extended his claws and slashed the wall. He matched each line perfectly to one of the monster’s fingers despite the strange proportions the children had given the digits.
“Prettyful,” the little girl declared with a wicked grin. “You’re a right good monster Mr. Robin.”
“Don’t you children forget. I’m off to find prey meatier than you.” The Captain continued on, deeper into the crust, into bustling crowds and shouting, until he arrived at the home of his new associates. Though most of the buildings, especially the ones along the street, had actual walls of stone simply covered in paper, his associated had erected one purely of paper, effectively spreading the rumor that they were upstanding enough to be homeowners. All it took to undo the upstanding of the house was a spirited flick or kick, but they’d built it at the very end of the street, artificially extending it in a way that few even noticed.
Rob was about to lean up against its wall and rap on the door when he remembered that such an act would surely punch right through. His associates might not have noticed, because the entire paper box already rocked back and forth vigorously. The walls were paper thin, so the pirate could hear every last moan and pant being generated within. It seemed his associates were in the midst of associating with each other. He didn’t have all night, so he dragged his bare foot across the paperboard street, his toenails rending it loudly and producing a long curl of debris.
“We’ll be out… in a few drips,” a voice responded, sounding equally of phlegm and gravel.
“Yeah, just… a few… more… drips,” a female voice added, her last word turning into something like a gargle.
“There’s money to be made and lost,” Rob argued. “You’re not going to keep this tissue over your head without it or without me. Come now. Shake a leg, zip it up, and then march out here with the other two.” The folducted house ceased its swaying. His associates dressed swiftly, mumbled about grabbing each other’s pants, undressed, dressed again, and undid the paperboard lock.
The pair stepped out into the daylight. The man was tall, even for bergfolk, rising nearly eight and a half foams off the ground. He had all the traits of his kind from his coat of white fur to his oversized nose, ears, and teeth. He planted a long bony finger in one ear and dug out a crusty piece of white wax. He had a long mustache that wrapped behind his ears and cascaded over top of them like a waterfall. His vest was tied across his chest with several small chains, every link a different size than both its neighbors. He was Claudize Raimentr: pickpocket, former champion of academic debate, first class liar, and all-around gentle soul.
He stood in stark contrast to his partner. She was tilefolk, and short for them as well. As with all others of her folk she lacked any semblance of a head, with her giant face stretched across her torso. Tilefolk women had eyes in place of bosom, but her eyes were colorful and lively enough to make one stare all the same. Her thick luscious fur was a glossy red and her sharp peg teeth were much whiter than most of her kind. Her hips swayed as she sauntered out with one hand on them. She had a thin golden skirt, its edge filled with cheap glass imitations of infamous bath beads. She was Skuldug Raimentr: ventriloquist and wife to Claudize.
With his talents and bloodline Claudize should have been living somewhere in the upper middle of Rinlatour, and it wasn’t his propensity for falsehoods or thievery that caused his plummet. It was that he dared to share a bed with a tilefolk. Even outside the heavily stratified city, such unions were rarely looked upon approvingly. Folk wed their own and bore children of the same. There were infinite misconceptions about such unions, and for the longest time both Claudize and Skuldug believed them true, but disregarded the consequences anyway.
They were banished from high society on their wedding night, all other parties equally disgusted by Skuldug using her voice-throwing talent to put her vows into Claudize’s mouth. The lovers thought it romantic, as it allowed both of them to make the exact same promise to each other; it was a thought of two souls but a single pronouncement. They were explaining how thrillingly romantic their banishment was at a bottom crust drinking establishment when the newly-risen Captain Kilrobin Ordr happened to overhear.
“It’s a weeping shame we can’t have fat little babies!” Skuldug yapped, her wide mouth even with the bar itself as she swiveled around on her stool. “I’d train those babies to swarm the ankles of those snooty-bergs and bite their skin off!” She grabbed her new husband’s arm, bit into it playfully, and screamed her frustration into his fur.
“We would be fine parents,” Claudize said with a nod, as if he hadn’t heard the part about flaying via teeth. “I’d teach them to argue and you’d teach them to put those words into other mouths. They could convince anybody to agree to anything. We’d make the whole of Porce agreeable. Acceptequay dacceptqua den acceptqua dautrey.”
“What’s stopping you?” the pirate had asked, asserting his presence. A server brought him a tin tray of fish baked in the skin. He used an emerald nail to slice it along the spine and separate a floppy fillet.
“You blind?” Skuldug asked, brushing her husband’s fur with her nails to undo the patterns of her teeth. “He’s berg and I’m tile. Incompatible hips. We can’t have babies any more than you can give birth to a bwag.”
“Nefarious rumors,” Rob declared as he snacked on the fish and licked his claws. “It’s nothing but rickety social mores keeping berg, tile, and light from sharing beds. I know for a fact, via several close friends and several even closer experiments, that berg and tile are capable of interbreeding. The rate of successful impregnation is quite low, and the resulting offspring are always one or the other rather than hybridized, but it is still possible.”
“What do you think of that Claudy?” Skuldug asked her husband, now tugging on his arm enough to bend him. She turned back to Rob. “What do you mean experiments, fishy man?”
“I was a scientist a life ago. I dabbled and smeared across all fields. In my physiological studies of folk I came across two cases where I witnessed the birth of a tilefolk babe from a bergfolk womb and a bergfolk babe from a tilefolk womb.”
“Would there,” Claudize entertained, “be anything special that we would need to do to facilitate this?”
“Do lots of experiments.”
That was when all three shared a smile. They proceeded to buy each other drinks and food for the remainder of the night, collectively emptying their pockets. Discussions of how to refill them in the lower levels of Rinlatour turned into a scheme where they could each play a part. When Rob called them out, still sweating from their scientific rigor, they were about to engage in their scheme once more.
The trio returned to the center of the bustling village and scouted out a new location outside the shop of a bell maker. Skuldug tore up some of the street, twisted it in an act of hand folduction, licked the seams to keep it tight, and then placed the resulting bucket at Rob’s feet. The Captain then waved his friends away so they could blend into the crowd.
“Your attention please!” Rob boomed out over the folk, but even with his mighty voice he could only draw so many eyes. These were tired, poor, jaded people. Rob could’ve been the hooded figure of Death and they still might’ve gone about their business. “There aren’t enough shows here in the bottom crust, so I’m offering one free of charge, though I do accept contributions to my charity.” He kicked the bucket so it swiveled but didn’t topple. “Observe and gawp at my freakish powers. I, the lightfolk man named Boldwin Waxr, though still clothed in flesh and hair, can bonepick!” A few more eyes turned his way, some of them clearly angry he would suggest something so absurd. He scanned the crowd one last time, making sure to spot Claudize’s head behind the group and Skuldug’s flashy skirt in the midst of their shoes; they were in place.
Now came the simple part. The pirate didn’t even need to strain himself to amaze them. The show started with a simple handstand that earned only scoffs. Rob took one hand away. Someone shouted that they’d seen simple acrobats do much better. The Captain responded by lifting all but one finger off the ground; he could practically hear their expressions turn befuddled. The man’s entire weight held aloft, upside down, by one finger? Was it truly bonepicking?
The angle gave him an excellent view of Skuldug’s furry feet. She tapped the left one twice, indicating they’d started pickpocketing. She shuffled back and forth, prioritizing those especially taken with the performance.
“That’s incredible!” a random voice declared from the edge of the clustered crowd. A few eyes turned that way, but the voice had no owner. It was Skuldug tossing hers aside to keep eyes off them. Rob found Claudize’s feet as well. Another tap communicated that he’d lifted an entire wallet full of goodies.
“Maybe it’s just incredible leatherflesh…” Skuldug guessed from the right.
“I don’t believe it! Not for one second!” Skuldug blurted from the left.
“Oh but it is true!” Captain Rob declared. “I invite you to approach and touch my skin. See that it still has the warmth of life. Don’t linger though, or you may get knocked over when I do this!” Rob pushed off from the ground and landed on his elbow, the rest of his body now held out to the side like a flag frozen mid-wave. He then pushed his gravitation into his chest, starting a rotation. He could’ve spun with enough force to bowl his audience over, but he kept it casual and comfortable. Otherwise he would not have been able to invite the children on for a ride.
Two lightfolk children and one bergfolk pushed their way through the pond of knees, giggling. They sat on the side of the pirate’s knee, hip, and shoulder, bouncing up and down to try and destabilize him. It was no use; he was as solid as a rock. The audience applauded. It was true. He was a living bonepicker. It was too bad he was stuck down there, where no talent mattered. There simply wasn’t enough coin to build a stage for him. His bucket remained empty, as the applause was the only payment they could spare. Rob bucked the children back to their feet and told them to skitter off when the crowd dissipated.
As he had for a long time now, he returned to the pop-up home of his associates and waited for them to rendezvous. In stepping on the long gash outside their front door, the one he’d made that morning to draw their attention, he saw another monster had been drawn with a claw to match it. That little tilefolk girl might’ve been following him, making sure there was a monster’s signature on every mark he made. He was pulled from the thought by a large hand suddenly clapping down on his shoulder.
“Another fine performance,” Claudize complimented, “and another fine haul.” He reached into his shoulder bag and pulled out an overflowing handful of square and rectangular coins, blue and copper respectively.
“Let’s hurry up then,” Skuldug said, smacking her husband on the small of the back. “Need to hand it off before it burns up.” She was right of course; one of the coins that slipped between Claudize’s fingers vanished before it hit the ground. Another faded away from the top of the pile. The bergfolk put them back in his bag.
“I know just the place,” he said, rubbing his finger against his blocky teeth, enjoying the taste of the coins’ sweat. His lips smacked. “There’s a little fair full of houseplants down the way. What say we go pick up something to warm our little tent, eh Shoulders?” The pet name made her coo in delight, as did the shoulder rub that immediately followed. “Then we go get a fine feast somewhere. You’ll be joining us Rob?”
“Not tonight,” the pirate answered, staring into the amber eye of the drawn monster. Did she always make that eye the same color? It was a nasty yellow, like the bark of a tree that had vomit under its surface in place of water. “I’ve got some correspondence to keep up. Postage is still obscenely expensive for the ekapads out here, so hand over my share.”
“If you’re sure you don’t want to be any fun,” Skuldug pouted. She reached both hands into her husband’s bag and cupped about a third of the coins. She walked over to Rob; he held one pants pocket open while she poured half of his share in. She finished emptying her hands into the other, leaving obvious noisy bulges on each of the pirate’s hips. After that the happy couple waved goodbye and went on their way. There was no telling if he’d gotten exactly one third of the take, but counting it was pointless. The number would surely have shrunk by the time the count was finished.
Even with his haul dwindling, jingling less and less with every step, Rob took his time on his walk to the ekapad posts. The mail-carrying animals needed plenty of open space to launch, so they were kept just outside the body of Rinlatour, on one of its many stone balconies that were big enough to hold their own towns.
Upon hitting the outside air the Captain took a deep breath. It was full of fresh mist from the Draining Sea, so all the bropato and topa of the interior gave way stone, glass, tile, and metal. Large lampposts marked the boundaries of the metal squares the beasts landed on, keeping civilians well away from any errant strikes of red lightning. The place was always full of noise: arguments over shipping costs and damage, the bleating and snorting of the ekapads, and the sizzle of their hooves when they dropped out of the sky and landed on the metal.
Rob saw the scorch marks on most of the plates; many of them were in dire need of replacement. This was the bottom crust, and no such replacement would occur until there was at least one related fatality. At the bottom their lives were simply markers for the tower’s stability. If they died a little too much it meant it was time to invest in the infrastructure to make sure it stood tall for another age.
By the time he was finished waiting in line half his coins had disappeared from his pockets. He didn’t have enough to send all the letters he wanted to, forcing him to prioritize. The ladies of the Green Ring can wait another day for our poetry. Anticipation is half the verse after all. Mr. Defstrettr can wait on our bone spur measurements as well. There’s never a shortage of freaks for a doctor like him. Teal… She hasn’t heard from us in three rinses. What’s one more day?
In the end he sent off three letters. One was to a distant relative by marriage informing her that no she could not resell those Custodial handkerchiefs, as they were once sneezed on by Custodian Ooey Goonr. They were surely family heirlooms, their value utterly incalculable thanks to the lack of measurement as to exactly how much dried mucus from which magical ancestors was present on them. They would have to be thoroughly appraised first.
The second was to another doctor regarding his experimental techniques on bone filing. Sooner or later Rob would have to start using a file on his nails, as clipping now turned them into nearly-deadly projectiles.
The third was to Miss Oobla Redr of Crosstahl, as he couldn’t be expected to have no communication with any of his favorite huffy, violent, or argumentative women. Oobla was always up for a good shout, even the written ones that featured letters so large that he had to pay extra to receive their tenth or eleven pages. Teal’s correspondence was always so cold and clinical. Her disappointed chill could be felt on the page, forcing him to grip the edges with a fold of blanket when he read them in the last moments of the florent.
He reached out and petted the flank of the animal set to deliver his letter to Oobla, ignoring the painful static pops of its electrical build-up. The post worker, in the midst of strapping on the feedbag, told Rob that they were not running a petting zoo. His unapproved stroking would cost one tile. The pirate flicked the coin to the man without complaint. He still wasn’t sure how rapidly fund transfer affected the likelihood of its disappearance, but he didn’t feel like lingering to find out.
Something whizzed by overhead, closely following the curve of the tower, but it couldn’t be seen from the underside. Rinlatour was banded by one wide spiral like a twisted gutter. While the ekapads and boats delivered goods between cities, that gutter delivered them between the layers of the tower, though it could only transfer from higher to lower. It was filled with water pumped up from the pressures of the drain itself; goods were then placed in watertight packaging aboard rafts and set afloat. Men and women with hooks at the end of long poles stood by to catch anything marked for their level. It was called the slipway. The pirate knew sliding down it was incredible fun, but only because he’d heard the unruly children talk of it. Only goods were sanctioned.
That was a rule to break on another day. By his estimation he’d already been a sufficient scoundrel; it was time to return to his thoroughly-deserved dank burrow, make a meal of a slimy vermin, and then sleep until his spirit was too jittery to continue. He left the ekapads and the bottom crust behind, descending beyond the dregs of civilization.
Hovel sweet hovel. The pirate fished out a flatfillet, built a fire in the pit behind his home, and roasted it until the skin blackened and flaked away. Its tiny bones were numerous, but no match for the grinding of his gemstone teeth. He chewed its entire spine into oily pulp before tossing the unpalatable tail to the many serponts wriggling at the edge of the basin. Best not give them too much or they might stop trying to eat us. We’d have to get an alarm clock then.
The pirate locked himself away for much of the day. When pulling the covers up to his shoulders he also tapped his pockets to make sure they were empty of the last few coins. His right hand found the shape of one. A brave straggler, sticking with us this long. It’ll learn its lesson before dark. He forced himself to yawn and then to sleep.
Rest was taken from him when he rolled over onto his chest and felt something pressing against his thigh. One eye popped open. He wiggled his hips a little to make sure he wasn’t imagining the shape. No, it was definitely there. Definitely square. Certainly not fair. Fare, but not fair. The pirate sat up and dug the shape out of his pocket, holding it in front of his face with two fingers. He twisted it back and forth. An ordinary coin. The straggler.
“What are you doing here?” he growled at it. The object offered no defense or explanation. “You there, is this your doing?” he asked, looking to his toes as they stuck out from the covers. There was a serpont there, about to initiate an attempt to swallow his leg. It stared back at him, mouth wide open, as it realized its prey was aware and not in the least bit frightened. The serpont’s mouth snapped shut as it curled away and vanished back out of the roof. Rob followed just behind, scaring all the other scavengers back into the water with his sudden exit.
“Are you deaf?” he asked the coin. “All the others figured it out. I can clear it up for you. I am Captain Kilrobin Ordr and I deserve my ill fortune. I murdered an innocent woman.” The coin was unperturbed. “I crawled out of the underworld after committing a most heinous theft.” Still no response. “Fine. I’ll do your job then. Don’t come back.” He flicked the coin out into drain with full bonepicking power; it sailed as if shot out of a cannon, bounced off the far end, and disappeared beneath the falling waters.
Disturbed by yesterday’s savings, the pirate doubled his commitment for the coming crimes. He ascended the drain once more, frightened some children who were still unfamiliar with his countenance and that wouldn’t refer to his nails or scratches as ‘prettyful’, and shook the house of Claudize and Skuldug when he rapped on their paper door. Skuldug emerged wearing an open-mouthed grin. She had a coin in each hand, using her thumbs to flick them into the air rhythmically.
“Do you believe it Rob?” she asked. His grimace did not answer the question, so she elaborated. “These are left over from yesterday. Somebody’s smiling on us.” Claudize ducked under his doorway and snatched one of the flicked coins out of the air. He bit it to test its substance.
“They’re real too,” he said. “Any theories Mr. Scholar?”
“Every process has its variance,” Rob answered. “Perhaps we inadvertently did something the royal flush approves of. My bonepicking show could’ve brightened someone’s day an unreasonable amount. Aye, it could simply be evidence that there’s someone here in the crust so lost in depression and mania that a simple street performer could cause a bout of paralyzing happiness. This hypothetical folk was somewhere in the crowd I drummed up yesterday.”
“Let’s hope they’re still crazy and miserable today,” Skuldug said. “If we can save up then I can buy a crib.” She ran her hands along her flat chin and stomach lovingly. “No, I’m not,” she said when she noticed Rob’s curious look, “but something might finally take to my tummy if we act ready for it.”
Rob nearly spat out something about the long odds of a successful conception, but held the venom back. He would need to spill it today to make sure no coins clinked around the inner tranquility of his empty pockets, but it didn’t need to spill on the only friends in his world that regularly looked upon his face. The pirate cocked his head, indicating they should get a move on.
The three thieves picked a new spot near a betting establishment. Lots of tile changed hands there and big winners were more likely to have spasms of charity to street performers. The big event that day was a haund chopping contest where animals of the woodsfolk breed, recognizable by a crescent-shaped horn-blade sharpened for the competition, used their horns to chop through stacks of paperboard. Swikt! The animals howled with each successful slice. Swikt! Arrhhooooo!
Rob’s voice had some difficulty competing with the noise, but once he started picking in front of a fresh empty bucket eyes gradually drifted over. He demonstrated his bonepicking by chopping through a stack of paperboard with the side of his hand. He split a stack three times as thick as the ones broken by the strongest haund, proudly declaring that they should all place wagers on him instead. Some did, especially since the pirate added a layer to the stack each time. This kept their interest until he failed on the thirty-fifth layer; it was still plenty of time for Skuldug to throw her voice around, distracting folk with false bets, and give Claudize opportunities to pick pockets instead of bones.
The take that day was even larger than before. Someone of wealth must’ve found themselves cast out of an upper layer and needing to spend their fortune before it disappeared, as there was never so much to go around except on such occasions. Rob absolutely had no choice but to join his companions in revelry. Rinlatour needed to see the error of its ways; it didn’t want someone like the Captain rising to the top. We’ve already seen the top. We’re not pretty up there. Well, let’s not fabricate, we are absolutely stunning up there, like a tree illuminated by slumbering lumasol in its branches, but there was an undeniable toxicity to our leadership.
They were off to a terrible start after successfully stealing twice as much as the previous day. The pirate followed his fellows to a carpenter and helped them pick out the most expensive crib available, which was carved from wood of the Green Ring. It reminded Rob of the hull of his old vessel, the Greedy Old Mop, and soured his mood even more. There had to be a way to stop thinking about all the high stations overhead and in his past.
After stashing the crib back in their home by folding an entire wall outward, Rob hurried them back out into the nightlife of the bottom crust. They needed food and drink and arguments and rude behavior too public to ignore. They started off the mad dash to the poorhouse at a combination butchery and eatery where they could pick out their living meal and watch it get slaughtered and cooked. Though it pained him to do so, Rob convinced the others to select the cutest tilehoof in the bunch. He made himself watch the bashing of its head and cutting of its throat. He ordered them to barely sear it so he could call himself a blood-drinker.
From there the trio spilled out onto the street, practically riding a wave of animal blood, and moved on to a tavern where they ordered whole bottles of expensive scrub-throat and colored toil waters. It was more than they could drink, but giving out free rounds might be considered charity, so instead Rob hollered and busted bottles on the floor, watching those eager for a taste lick it off before it could be absorbed by the paperboard. Some of them cut their tongues on shards of glass. Yes, what a cruel waste. We don’t deserve this wealth. We deserve only our bones, only the precious stones we’ve always held so close to our heart.
The florent turned on, casting their misdeeds in the day’s light. The small desperate crowd that had built up around their antics suddenly thinned, embarrassed in the fresh light. The day had come too soon, for Rob still had coins. In another desperate act of violent generosity he pelted several begging orphans with whipped moneys; he made sure that each one walking away with a piece had a bruise as well.
Claudize and Skuldug were not immune to the sobering effect of daylight, and they too were put off by Rob’s lingering mania. They said as much and took their leave hand in hand. Rob could hear some leftover proceeds clinking in Claudize’s satchel. He scratched at his scalp in frustration, forgetting the deep marks his claws would make. Initially he thought the fall of someone wealthy had dropped all that coin into the betting place, but it was now clearly something else. Money had fallen on its own, as if from a thousand pocket holes.
Rob descended the long way back to the drain. The serponts would understand his desire to get rid of the coins. They never even wore pockets; they never even grew limbs with which to hold sparkly things. Brilliant bodies actually. Not responsible for anything they do: can’t hold weapons, coins, or lovers. We should have bonepicked all ours off in the Pipes, slithered around in the bloody muck making deals like…
He turned his pockets out, pouring the last of the coins into the basin. They splashed and vanished under the falls immediately. It was done. He hadn’t a cent to his name. He wasn’t called captain down there, so there wasn’t even the implication of a cent either. That should serve as a sufficient reminder to Rinlatour.
The pirate turned in for a few drops, almost daring the world to wake him up with something unpleasant. The only thing he was willing to share his bed with was a writhing serpont trying to force him down its gullet. Anything else was discourtesy and disrespect. Just to be safe he slept in the nude so he had no pockets to fill.
When next he lifted his blanket, blue and copper squares tumbled out and bounced off his stone floor. The pirate swished his bare foot across them and listened to the scratching of the coins; they were no hallucination. There wasn’t even a serpont trying to break its way in. They must not have liked the scent of the little metal wafers; it was too much like civilization. Captain Rob would have far too rich a taste.
The pirate pulled on his pants only to notice the bulging pockets. He leapt up and out of his roof with bonepicking. As quickly as he could he shoveled the coins out of his pants and into the basin to be swallowed up. When they were empty he realized he was panting. There was a jab of pain in his side; he grabbed at it and hissed. We have to stay calm now. Panic comes with pain and it works the same in reverse. Breathe without stabbing ourselves. Rob had to express his fury somehow, so he cast his head up to the vast tiled dome of Rinlatour’s drain and shouted.
“Trickledown economics!” he roared. “This is not how you’re supposed to trickle! What are you idiots doing up there?” The city did not answer. Rob had no recourse without leaving the great city of Slick Rin. There was nowhere in particular for him to go, and stubbornness told him to remain. The unique economics of the city had their use, even if they weren’t working properly at the moment. They were the key to insuring his second chance at life. Whatever this phenomenon was, he had to ride it out.
Skuldug and Claudize were not interested in thievery that day. Their coins hadn’t gone anywhere, so they saw no reason. Instead they left Rob out on the street while their paper house wobbled back and forth. The pirate struck out on his own and committed crimes with far less subtlety than usual. He picked pockets and fights and bones for drops. He earned a few bruises across his face and arms in the process of getting himself thrown out of five different establishments.
It had no effect. He didn’t put a single coin in his pocket, mostly dropping anything he stole, and yet still he had funds. After that he attempted to spend it all, buying up silver buttons to replace his tile ones. New boots of black boxback leather. A matching belt studded with tiny bath beads that sparkled and flickered between every color of the rainbow. A purebred slickfur wolptinger that sat on his shoulder and purred. The animal was already highly trained and accustomed to a pricey diet, but it couldn’t eat the entire tin of fancy rosy roe he purchased for it. The pirate was forced to down the rest of the fish eggs himself; the oil of fine food brought back the memories of his personal chef.
When Rob next returned to his hovel he was a glorious mess. Again he dumped his pockets out into the basin, but this time he couldn’t empty them completely. Handful after handful of money came out. He was on his knees shoveling coins out of his pants and over the edge. He did this for more than a drop with no success, eventually descending into more shouting and cursing. His wolptinger, now named Fayme, batted a coin across the stone, unaware of her master’s frustration.
“Don’t give me that look,” he snarled at her. Her wide eyes took up most of her round head, which shook back and forth on her long knobby neck. The head curled all the way across her back and upside down so she could lick the fur on her thighs. She knows she’s going back to luxury. There’s nothing we can do about it. It’s piss on us, but it’s scented piss at a hundred tiles a bottle.
The days wore on. No matter what he did, Rinlatour knew exactly what sort of folk he was; it made sure he had the funds it deemed appropriate. There was something intolerably fraudulent about living in a gold-filled hovel, so Rob was forced to purchase a respectable paper-lined home in the bottom crust. When he slept in his new bed, Fayme purring at his side and dreaming of even higher levels, he could barely hear the pounding of the waters below.
Even a rinse on, the move alleviated nothing. Rob came home each night to drawers full of money. In his absence they were even arranged by an unseen force into neat stacks. The common blue and copper started giving way to the decorative gold of larger denominations. Every tactic was tried a moment after it was conceived. He tried washing the money in blood to contaminate it with evidence of his crimes, but it was clean by next florentshine.
He introduced himself to every folk he met as ‘Boldwin Waxr: most heinous of heels’. He wore his bonepicker’s sword on his hip openly. He received a rather large tattoo on his back of a pirate ship, with the green spike jutting out of his shoulder acting as an evil eye on its hull. The artist was instructed to fill the deck with bound and gagged hostages. Alas, there was no effect.
Claudize and Skuldug spent all day in the throes of love, but their wealth grew as well. They eventually convinced a defeated Rob that there was no point in staying in the bottom crust when they, and a few other notable scoundrels around town, could now afford better. The couple kicked down their flimsy house and purchased a new one up in the artisanal spread: the home of the honest hardworking craftsfolk of Rinlatour.
The neighborhood was a vast improvement, if less warm with its lack of bropato and topa. Most buildings were clad in green and gold paint with streets of red-orange brick. There were carvers, jewelers, weavers, performers, masons, researchers, and a hundred other professions being run out of well-kept houses. Rob, Claudize, and Skuldug pooled their resources and purchased a three-story house to share.
Rob had the top floor: bedroom, sitting room, laboratory, kitchen, and wash. He quickly filled it with furniture, sparing no expense when it came to adding climbing and clawing shelves to all the walls for his new friend Fayme. He bought a reinforced swinging bed so he could use bonepicking to rock himself to sleep and whittle away the boredom. In the artisanal spread one was expected to keep up their appearance, so he bought an all new wardrobe. Expense was no concern, but he couldn’t bring himself to don the cape once again. Rinlatour had given him back his wealth, but capes were for conquerors. They were dignity. Our dignity still lives down there, sleeping next to poor Vyra, deservedly suffering under her hot breath.
He was also forced to trim his nails to a more regular shape, an activity that threatened his new belongings. He had to face away from his full length mirror whenever trimming so the rogue clippings wouldn’t shatter it. Even so, many of them found their way into the ceiling and stuck there like crystal nails pounded too far through the roof.
Moving into the artisanal spread came with friendly neighbors that insisted on bringing over pies and pastries. The pirate endured a housewarming party where he was accused of being Claudize’s and Skuldug’s butler. Their union was still frowned upon, but their fine clothing and full pockets overrode such frowns with sycophantic smiles. Suddenly the whole tower seemed excited at the prospect of them having a child or bravely walking down the street holding hands.
Rob spent his nights sitting on the edge of his bed and staring out the window at the brilliant globe lamps across the street. Without pumping his legs he swung the bed back and forth, rolling a slumbering Fayme to and fro without knocking her to the floor. Something had gone wrong with the city.
The trickledown economics of Rinlatour were powered by magic. It allowed them to thrive and maintain their resources. Transactions, investment, and banking all worked as it did elsewhere, but there was an additional layer of oversight. Finance in the great city was tied into courtesy and decency. If you thanked someone you might find an extra tile in your pocket when you went to purchase lunch. Acts of charity were sometimes rewarded with more than what was given away.
Similarly, acts of disrespect and criminality would cost you. Needless personal insults made coins vanish even as you held them. A man could correctly be judged a murderer if bill day came around and he suddenly couldn’t pay when he always had before; it would prompt a quick search for all his loved ones. This ensured, according to the royal flush, that the concentration of wealth in the upper levels was utterly deserved. If a soul lost in the darkness of poverty was sufficiently bright, coins would dribble down one by one, out of the pockets of those who had forgotten why they were privileged in the first place, and into that soul’s savings can.
The principal that the scum would be kept out of sight and underfoot was exactly what the Captain had counted on. There were a thousand fine cracks to live in as a scoundrel, but only Rinlatour allowed you to precisely measure how much of a scoundrel you were. The city’s layers were like the incremental marks on the side of a scientific cylinder. By keeping himself under even the lowest line, Rob had the certainty he’d often sought with piracy aboard the Greedy Old Mop.
The man was getting on in rests, his beard silvering at the ears, so his chance at his bones felt closer than ever. When the pressure of his internal spines was added the pirate was forced to admit he probably had less than a rest left. If he was going to be gravefolk, live on past his heart, bowels, and brain, he needed to be sure he had earned it. The wicked and those full of regret earned their second chance at life.
The ascension to the artisanal spread robbed Rob of that certainty. If he perished at that moment, clean in a comfortable bed next to a cuddly animal, that might be the end of it. No emerald admiral as prophesied by the green skull with the spiked mustache that he put on all his flags.
Much of his time was spent floundering in frustration, but there were some spared thoughts for the rest of the city. He certainly hadn’t changed, neither had his companions, so something must have gone wrong with the magic atop Rinlatour. That he could not investigate. Coin could only go so far; its upper reaches were the realm of only bergfolk, only those of royal lineages. He would never even be allowed to set eyes on the bead.
It was a pity. Rob rubbed his face with both hands. Every time he looked at his polished nightstand there was still a golden stack of coins there. Sometimes it was one taller than a moment before. Perhaps it would topple in the night, fall across his chest, and wake him. Give us back the serponts. We want something alive to wake us up. Not these unjust rewards. A curse on whoever shows us such favor! Financiers of the ruin we can’t help ourselves from making!
Worst of all… Someone will find us up here in the attic. They’ll see a man with no cape and no crew and think him willing to subjugate himself. They will dare try to employ us!
Offer of Employment
“I don’t hear you banging on the breakfast table; is everything alright?” Rob joked grimly as he descended the stairs. The florent was freshly alight, so it was about time to sneak a piece of shinebread out from under their writhing, butter it, and wash it down with a glass of blue toil water. The pirate was shirtless, as he never bothered to hide the emerald spines from Claudize and Skuldug. He stopped on the bottom stair and looked over at the table. His companions were seated there, next to each other but not touching. A second bergfolk sat across from them, silently cutting into a sandwich of shinebread, pickles, and tilehoof knuckle meat. It was the fanciest meal Claudize could work up in haste.
“Boldwin,” Skuldug crooned, “we have a guest.” The tilefolk’s expression was impenetrable, somewhere between pride and shock. “Can you believe someone as dignified as this is here to see you?”
“A rinse ago I’d be sure it was a jest,” the pirate said. Their guest was clearly not of the artisanal spread; her dress and outer cloak were of fine white and blue cloth. The cloak was fastened with a silver pin in the diving image of a bibywhorl. She had silky white hair tied in two tight spirals like cyclones wilting over her shoulders. Her nose was abnormally pink and hairless, suggesting she participated in the recent bergfolk high society trend of shaving and painting it to a more lightfolk tone.
“You are Boldwin Waxr?” she asked, standing.
“Who’s asking?” Rob fired back, leaning on the banister.
“Be nice,” Claudize hissed. “We’re in the company of royalty.” He rolled his eyes at their guest, but kept them from landing on her too directly.
“Royalty, in my house,” Skuldug snickered. “Royalty eating my shinebread. That means you two are never complaining about it ever again.”
“Please, my business is urgent,” their guest said. “My name is Dianarhea Odettr. I have a business proposition for you Mr. Waxr.”
“Odettr?” Rob muttered. He squeezed the banister as if strangling someone. “Odettr as in the surname of the royal flush? You’re relation to Royal Flush Hazelnoose Odettr?”
“Yes, I am his daughter. Was his… May we speak in private?” Rob thought for a moment, rubbing his beard.
“Are you sure you want to be privy with me?” he asked, turning his voice into a growl. “I’m an aggressively shirtless fiend living two levels above his spirit.”
“I’ll take my chances. It is the levels of living we must discuss.” Dianarhea excused herself from the table and approached the stairs, but Rob pointed back at her uneaten plate of food.
“If you’re absolutely certain you want to convene with me in my filthy lair I won’t stop you.” Something else should. She should live her whole life without ever coming down here. “But bring that sandwich. Once my company ruins your appetite I’m confident I’ll still have mine.”
“Those sweet pickles are supposed to be for company,” Claudize stressed.
“We’re all guests of the city,” Dianarhea said, picking up the plate. “I’m sure you’ve all noticed that room numbers are being shuffled. I seek to set them right. Surely you won’t mind sacrificing a few pickles to my cause. Voudrayvo, ancieniqua heldre duldebat?” Claudize lowered his head in deference. He would always defy rule whenever it tried to drive a wedge between him and Skuldug, but he wasn’t without respect for the city or its royal lines. Dianarhea was a flushess; all bergfolk grew up hearing stories of their elegance and measured decisiveness. They could end wars at parties and start parties in the midst of war.
She just called him ‘former champion of debate’ in Merdidu; she knows of him. Can’t know us. We’re Boldwin to all but these two.
The flushess followed Rob upstairs to his quarters, closing the door behind her. There was nowhere to sit except for the swinging bed, so she set the sandwich down on a dresser and paced about the room. Fayme immediately crawled out from behind the furniture and dug her head into the food. Rob, eager to make a bad impression, rushed over and fought the wolptinger for that half of the sandwich. He ripped it out of her mouth and then took a bite of his own, chewing with his mouth open, ignoring the taste of pet dander.
“I must apologize for the stately state of this place,” he said through a full mouth, lunging this way and that, pulling clothes out of drawers and tossing them all over the floor and bed. “Normally it’s far more disgusting. I had a romantic conquest stay the night recently, and she thought she was paying me back for the quaking satisfaction by tidying up while I slept.”
“You seem as disturbed by your new home as I am,” Dianarhea said to cut through his theatrics. “In my search for a candidate I heard several rumors about you Mr. Waxr, most interesting among them the notion that you are capable of bonepicking.” Rob forced out a belch, tossed the sandwich at Fayme, and stepped onto his bed. Facing the bergfolk he moved his legs forward and back, rocking the bed. He kept everything above the waist perfectly still; the overall image was quite impossible for a regular man to achieve. “So it is true!”
“Aye. I’m already as damned as the grave and the world sees no point in keeping me from my well-deserved abilities.”
“Is it also true that Boldwin Waxr is not but a pseudonym?” The bed shuddered, the pirate nearly falling to the floor. “Ah, so it is. You are actually Captain Kilrobin Ordr. You are in line with a Custodian.”
“Who told you this?”
“The royal family may not visit the bottom crust Captain Ordr, but we are fully aware of what goes on down there. If you accept my offer we may have to give you yet another new name.”
“I’m not interested in fresh starts,” the pirate insisted. “Only rotten ones.” He stepped down from the bed and picked a shirt out of the pile he’d just created, pulling it on. “I was minding my own business, keeping to my low station, when all your family’s coins went off the seat and started making me look like a fine gentleman.”
“That’s why I’m here Captain.” Her expression darkened. She moved to the window and put her long hairy fingers on it. One of them traced a drop of moisture running down the glass. “A vile monster has disrupted Rinlatour. Botequa cranesay de maladequitquay. It has taken control of the golden trickle bead.”
“Are you related to this monster?” the pirate asked. “The bead belongs to the royal flush and his immediate family.”
“I am no such thing!” she shouted, scratching at her nose; perhaps shaving was not what made it hairless. “What I am about to tell you is a secret to most of Rinlatour. If you do not keep this secret I will use what remains of my authority to have you locked in an iron box and thrown down the drain. Do you understand me?”
“You know less of me than you think,” Rob said with a harsh grin. “I’ve been down the drain, so your threat means little. Still, I’ll keep your secret. They’re usually more effort to blab about anyway.”
“My father Hazelnoose,” Dianarhea started, her voice quivering. Oddly, it seemed to steady once her tears actually flowed. “My father is dead.” Rob stared back with a stony expression. The royal flush is dead? That is… of note. “He was killed by the monster that now manipulates the bead, that this very drip puts wealth into the dirtiest hands and most cave-like banks.”
“If the royal flush is dead, authority over the golden trickle bead is to transfer to the next royal in line.”
“Normally yes,” the bergfolk said with a nod, “and that would be me, but we’re in an extraordinarily awful set of circumstances. My father is dead, but his body still walks about and refuses to divest its authority. As long as his feet keep his head off the floor, I cannot claim what is rightfully mine.”
“What exactly do you mean?” Two of Rob’s fingers touched. They used to have a neighbor between them, but there was a price to pay in escaping the Pipes. He ran his thumb across the digit’s stump. It was not possible. Nothing so unfolkish could rise so high in Rinlatour. The idea that there were cracks in the royal flush’s home large enough for it to slip through…
“This will sound crazy,” she elaborated, “but no crazier I think than Rinlatour turned on its head like a salt shaker. A creature bearing heavy resemblance to a prosite has, somehow, invaded my father’s body. It killed him… or smothered his soul… nobody really knows. Now its face covers his. The scheming thing is in league with corrupt bergfolk. They use the technicalities of our laws to do the damage that has brought you here.”
“A prosite?” Rob stepped down from the bed. What luck that we are alone. If any of our better pieces were here they would immediately air their suspicions. We’re fine. None know of our bargain. We cannot fight it; if it so much as sees us we’re doomed. “What does this corruption have to gain from enriching the lower levels of the city?” He changed the subject; it could’ve been any number of other prosites after all.
“They’re not just sowing chaos,” the flushess explained. “The prosite has plans. Since it wields my father’s body it can make whatever alterations it wants to the golden trickle bead. As you know, my line precisely tweaked its wealth manipulation magic to reward proper behavior. Coins are rewarded from thin air for respect, ingenuity, and valor. Coins are taken for crime, insults, and impropriety.”
“That is the theory.”
“Theory?” The bergfolk’s eyes narrowed. “It was the way of this place for a hundred rests. Our trickle-down economics ensured that goodness was rewarded.”
“Bergfolk goodness maybe,” the pirate said with a snort. “Not too many lightfolk, tilefolk, and gravefolk up there. Do you think they’re all so bad? Your line has built its biases into the magic too.”
“Racial discrepancies are utterly irrelevant right now,” Dianarhea argued, sweeping her hand as if shoving a mob of protesting bugs under the bed. “My point is that the monster has changed the bead’s priorities. I know from some snooping of my own that its plan has at least two phases; the first is to destabilize Rinlatour’s peace by elevating the criminal element. This is the cause of your rise. Funds are also vanishing from those who protest its rule, sending my allies lower and lower each day. Pricing us out of our morality! Those who bow to him are allowed to stay.”
“And the second phase?”
“The prosite will hone the magic. Soon the bead will know to discern even rebellious thoughts. Anyone who would so much as think to oppose the slimy fiend would find themselves instantly penniless. That is why I am forced to act now, while there is still tile to my name and while loyalists still have holdfasts above the artisanal spread.”
“You want to hire me?” Rob reminded. “What for exactly? Do you need a bodyguard to trip up the other contenders rushing for the throne? I don’t do that sort of work. I can’t even guard my own body.” He flashed his emerald teeth and turned to let her see the spike from his shoulder through the thin shirt, to let it be known that it was certainly a disease.
“I know what sort of work you do Captain Ordr,” she said, picking up his bonepicker’s sheath. She drew the blade and examined its characteristic bulge and curve. “You were the slippery terror of Third Sink. The rot that made the flag green. You’re a pirate. A bandit.”
“All of that’s behind me,” he declared, “nothing but a humble starving con artist now.” Fayme choked for a moment before hacking up a slimy pickle.
“I need it to be above you,” the flushess insisted. “I need you to steal the golden trickle bead.” Rob didn’t respond immediately, instead chewing on the thought. He stroked the wolptinger; it climbed up onto his shoulder and purred as if urging him to take the opportunity. The animal pushed so hard against his cheek that it turned his face in the bergfolk’s direction. She was waiting. “If I have the bead I can alter its magic back and hide it until the economy returns to normal,” she added.
“Steal the golden trickle bead,” the Captain mulled. “About as easy as plucking a cardinal tile from its fixture.”
“You will be rewarded handsomely. I can offer a down payment right now in the form of industrial metal ingots that are kept in Rinlamer. They are not subject to the trickle-down. If you succeed you will have enough coin to live comfortably for the rest of your days.”
“Is such a prize even worth the risk?” Rob asked himself more than Dianarhea. “I assume no ekapads even touch down on the highest level?” She nodded. “The bead is under constant guard?” A nod. “Even the nearby reflective surfaces are protected, with guards posted in the Reflecting Path?” A nod. “So how do you propose I rob it!?” he barked. Why are we yelling? It’s a challenge, but we’ve never been afraid of those before. It’s that blob. What it knows keeps us from coming out ahead in any thief’s scenario. Unless we slay it.
“It would be your job to think of something!” she fired back. “If I knew how criminals thought I’d do it myself!”
“There’s absolutely no possibility of doing it alone,” Rob added. “We need a band: a scout, a forger, decoys, and an inside folk.”
“I can be the inside folk,” she offered. He approached her, staring deep into her small eyes. She didn’t shrink under his gaze; she was many bubbles taller after all. “It doesn’t matter if I lose my life. I’ll happily sacrifice it to clear that sludge from my father’s veins. I would take it into mine just to have his body pure enough to go to rest in the ice!”
“Claudize and Skuldug will gladly accept; they slobber over even the slightest chances at victory.”
“The two downstairs?” the flushess questioned. “They are… up to the task?”
“We’re not up to the task,” Rob clarified, “that’s the whole point. Nobody is. It will take crazies to say yes. They’re definitely crazy enough.” She still seemed skeptical. “You’re new to this Miss Dianarhea. You’ve been on the up and up your whole life. This is the down and down. We’re underfolk. We’re the decomposers living on the wet side of the bark, sifting through dirt for that one bit of sparkle because only immeasurable luck can right our wrongs.”
“I am that bit of sparkle Captain Ordr. I am one of the royal jewels and I have descended this far of my own volition to offer this to you.”
“I lived in the bottom crust for a reason flushess. I am an evil man. I wanted to stay there.”
“You may have a mouth full of emeralds,” she whispered, leaning down and forcing him to wilt. Fayme slunk off his shoulder and ran under the bed. “But I see your true colors. You were a captain. Whatever penance my city has offered you, it is now time to return the favor. You can go right back to your overflowing pot when we’re done. You’ll have plenty of resources to misuse.”
“At its most basic it is something to do with myself,” Rob admitted. “That has been sorely lacking, especially in these obnoxiously comfortable surroundings.” Get it over with. The decision’s already made. The old us wouldn’t blink like a sandy-faced child at such a request. We’re surrounded by water on all sides. If it all becomes piss on us we can just dive off, bonepick into a survivable splash, and ride the Draining Sea elsewhere. “Alright. Dianarhea Odettr, you have your thief.”
“Excellent,” she said, hands smoothing out her garb. “I’ll assume the cold phlegm in my throat is the thrill of rebellion.”
“That or the sniffles,” the pirate said. “They’ve always been hard to tell apart.”
“I’ll take my leave for now Captain. We must move quickly, so I expect you to have your band of thieves gathered up by the time I return here in three days. I will arrange transport of us all, as high in Rinlatour as I can claw.”
“How many are we allotted?”
“I can transport no more than ten,” she answered, “though smaller would be easier. I’ll trust you to take only what you need. Now I must go. Good luck in your recruiting.” The flushess extended her hand to seal their bargain. Rob took it and shook, surprised at the strength of her grip. She took the opportunity to twist his wrist and examine his emerald nails. She made a small surprised sound in her hollow nasal chamber, as if she’d opened a rotten egg and found a tiny tweeting songbird. Without another word she took her leave, audibly descending the stairs three at a time.
“There’s just one problem,” Rob told Fayme as the wolptinger emerged from under the bed and curled up in its covers. “We don’t have enough friends.”
This is the only important letter I’ve sent thus far. The rest have been about the two of us, about what little still connects us across the filthy floor of Porce. I write now as a warning that you may never hear from me again. I’ve been contracted by the flushess of Rinlatour. She tells me a monster has killed her father, possessing both his body and his authority over the famed golden trickle bead.
I am to steal the bead for her to prevent the city’s collapse. There is a plan forming in the back of my head, but the shadow of doubt has cast it in darkness. Chances of success are slim with the few associates I have at my disposal.
So I write asking for your advice, hoping you can deliver it within a day, before I climb into territory uncharted by the likes of me. Think back to our days of plunder, before you freed yourself from my poison and blossomed into a career captain yourself, and tell me of any tactics I may have forgotten.
The bead is under constant guard in both realms, and no ekapads visit its layer. Everything depends on it being in place, so its absence will be noticed in moments. We’ll also need a method of escaping the city once the bead is handed off to the flushess. I’m considering the slipway, but that will be at the edge of the tower when the bead is undoubtedly kept near the center. As I said, this task is foolhardy, but I am the hardiest fool, so it has fallen to me. If you’ve learned of anything that can help me, or remember part of a scheme where we shared smiles and riches and a bed full of riches, please write to me as swiftly as your fingers can.
On another matter, you now have my blessing to tell the remains of the Greedy Old Mop my fate. I feared some of the more influenced among them would follow me here and subject themselves to unneeded debasement, but that is no longer the case. As you tell them I will either be nearing my death or nearing a success so significant that I will be sitting atop a fresh hoard of respectability.
Tell them I’m glad for their successes under your banner and that I wish them all the best. There is much I still have to tell you about my time in the Pipes, but I think Porce will not suffer if I don’t. Revelations abound, about the very nature of our world, but I know none of that has ever been a concern of yours. Know that the creatures of the Pipes were mighty and mad, and that they cared for nobody but themselves. This includes myself when I was lost in the rusted bowels of it.
Forever yours and mine,
The Captain kept himself extremely busy gathering supplies and making plans for the heist. He was correct in his assumptions that Claudize and Skuldug would immediately participate for an even share of the reward. They would take any excuse to prance around in the cream filling, be it as laughingstocks or pursued criminals. They would still be there, and in their hearts they would still deserve it.
Claudize took out several documents from the library that detailed the upper levels of Rinlatour. They still had no clue where the golden trickle bead was kept, so their focus turned to escape routes from any of the major possibilities. Of special note was any freight station connected to the slipway. Jumping into it provided multiple opportunities to shake off pursuers as they sped to layers less monitored. It was an especially promising tactic for Captain Rob, whose bonepicking would allow him great control of entering and exiting, or even gluing himself to its bottom and hiding under its obscuring flow.
Skuldug liquidated much of their new furniture and used the funds to purchase tools of the trade: lock picks, false documents and seals, and very fine clothing they could all use as disguises. She bought herself a crystal-encrusted head hammer in bergfolk likeness. Such things were busts on sticks that allowed tilefolk to have the same silhouette as lightfolk or bergfolk, but Rob had never seen one so flashy as the one Skuldug brought back. Its sapphire eyes sparkled with internal light, looking like eggs laid by the sky.
In truth Rob did the least actual work. He wrote plenty of dramatic farewell letters to his contacts around the world, keeping the exact nature of his mission excluded. Under the guise of educating them, he regaled Claudize and Skuldug with every last offense in his storied piracy career. He told them about kidnapping a rival’s pet hwumth: an animal so fat that playing fetch with it caused his ship to rock back and forth. He recounted every detail of running the P.O.S. Hideous aground and chasing it inland even after its hull unfurled into magical wooden bug legs. In the process he reminded himself that nothing was ever so risky as what they were about to attempt. Even when his crew had escorted Cardinal Second they had the benefit of the wide open spaces of the World Floor. Rinlatour had only up and down, and there was no bergfolk army to borrow when things got hairy.
They were still a day out from Dianarhea’s return; Rob was in his attic room preparing his metamorphosis. He had pretended respectability many times, but never as a fop. He was a commander, a captain, and a seasoned warrior. He wore capes and boots perfect for stomping into and blocking the blowholes of any whorls that dared try to sink his ship. Oh how he missed his furry verdant rug of a cape…
When they reached the cream filling he would likely be presented as some lightfolk waif that the flushess took pity on. She would expect him to carry her coat, which was certainly an indignity even if that coat concealed their burglar’s tools. Still, he did not want to look too much like a servant. He trimmed his beard and oiled it, dying the gray tufts near his ears the same green of his old cape. He took a striped shirt from the pile of things provided by Skuldug and was disgusted by the stink of obedience wafting off its tall collar. He set it aside, to be donned only when the revelation of how many buttons could be both undone and socially acceptable struck him.
What needed more immediate attention were his emerald talons. In the two days since Dianarhea left they had already grown out and curved into intimidating rodent-snatchers. He would need to start painting them again in the cream filling. Jewels embedded in his body might ingratiate him to the wealthy, but it was better to operate up there without any distinguishing marks that could be reported to the new authorities.
If they were to be painted back to the same watery eggshell tone of normal lightfolk, they first had to be tamed. His pair of nail clippers was not up to the task, even when he sat on his swinging mattress and brought his foot up to his opposite thigh. His fingers bonepicked, so there was no lack of force, but the thin metal was not stronger than the emerald. The tool snapped in half under the effort, leaving only a thin white scratch on his big toenail.
He switched to the sharpest knife available, sharp as the wit of Custodian Alp Ummitr. Claudize had purchased it in case the trickle-down turned against them once more. The golden trickle bead’s magic was calibrated to solely affect the coins that were legal tender, and not their pieces and parts. The knife was sharp enough to peel the metal edge from coins. The defaced coin could then be returned to circulation while the peel was left behind to be melted down into its component metal and then sold. This process, usually done with clippers like the ones Rob’s deadly toenail just destroyed, was called coin clipping. There were other ways to extract metal from currency and thus eliminate the risk of the bead reclaiming it, and Rob’s mind already played with several in preparation for their schemes: coin seducing, coin licking, coin magnetization…
He took the knife to the nail and wiggled it back and forth until he’d scored a notch in the emerald. From there he applied all the bonepicking force he could muster from both directions. The blade’s progress was slow. The Captain stole a glance at the mirror across from him, just to make sure he looked as ridiculous as he felt. To his surprise, he looked even more ridiculous.
His reflection was stood up, eyes wide, mouth open, and hands flailing. Rob set the knife down and cautiously approached. His reflected self kept up the pantomime; it swung its hands in circles about the floor, apparently telling him to tidy up.
“What are you doing?” he asked the image. “How is this possible?” He touched the glass. “My piece is lost to the depths of the Snyre. You should be the same obedient nothing you’ve been for washes.” The reflection smacked the glass, shaking the mirror’s wooden sides. Its thumb shot out to the side, as did its eyes. It indicated there was someone coming, someone just outside the frame. It was a very large mirror; nobody knows how many pieces are out there. One of them is coming to visit!
The pirate turned and used his toenails as a rake, sweeping loose items and clothing under the bed. He grabbed the foppish shirt that he’d already decided not to wear and used it to dust the furniture before throwing it under the bed as well. Now we’re cleaning in a rush. Haven’t we decided what image to present yet? He noticed that the toenail he’d done the most work on now hung by only a small connection. He flopped to the bed, grabbed the knife, and tried to separate it.
He succeeded, but it took such force that the sharp crescent of emerald went flying and spinning across the room, only to bounce off the tunic of his visitor as she stepped out of the mirror. The tall woman tapped the toenail with the tip of her boot and then looked at Rob as if he was a haund pup that had just urinated on the rug.
“Teal?” Rob asked in disbelief, blinking his eyes rapidly to be sure she was no illusion. She’d shown up in his attic bedroom plenty of times after all, but only in dreams. “I don’t believe it.” He approached her, stretching out his arms for an embrace but thinking better of it at the last moment. She never said much in her letters beyond the success of her ship and the state of her crew; there could’ve been a new man in her life.
“We came all the way from Third Sink, so start believing,” she said with a hint of a smile.
“We?” Teal stood aside, hands behind her back. Rob’s reflection was still in the side of the mirror, but its head was bowed and its arms pointed to the real bedroom. From beyond the frame came four folk. They stepped out of the glass as if it wasn’t there, showing much less restraint than Teal. They wrapped their arms around Captain Rob, smacked his shoulders and back, kissed his cheeks, and laughed.
“Alive! Still fleshed and bearded too!” Dawn Shockr, his former second mate, declared, pinching his cheeks with leatherfleshed hands. It took hearing her voice to recognize the gravefolk, as she’d kept her skull free of masks and leatherflesh. Her cap used to be covered in row after row of artificial hair: chains of wooden beads that made sounds like rain whenever she moved. She still had hair, but the wood had been replaced by countless strings of carved seashell fragments, each tiny piece a crescent shape. She now looked like the foam atop a fountain and sounded like a shellenfowl dropping its unhatched young on a thin roof. Rob noticed many of the shells were painted blue: the color of Teal’s ship the Employer.
“Do you know how hard it was to keep me mouth lidded?” Rob’s nephew Roary asked. The young man had grown; he stood as tall as his uncle now.
“It be good to eyeball you more,” Ladyfish Paintr added. It looked like she had combed her knotted hair for the reunion; the endearing gesture made her quite hideous. Ladyfish’s rocky face, like a ship wrecked upon stone by its captain gone mad, was always a joy to have around when something mad needed done. Her dull hair, now graying, was practically combed over her eyes.
“We missed you Rob,” Bonswario Bucklr chimed. He was one of the other faces always leading the raiding parties of the Greedy Old Mop. The Captain remembered the swarthy man as endlessly cocky and with his chest always puffed out. Now he was a touch bony, with some subtlety and sadness in his eyes that suggested he saw his younger self retreating into the distance when he looked in the mirror. A normal mirror anyway. Not this one.
“I’m shocked,” the Captain said, grabbing all their shoulders two by two. “It is wonderful to see all of you again, truly. I am sorry about the deception; we’ll have time to discuss it I’m sure.”
“We already know it be eating at your beard,” Roary said through his grin. “You’re trying to puzzle out how we got our hands on a piece of the Reflecting Path.”
“That I am,” he admitted. “Claiming mine took a wash hunting ghosts in the barrens of the path above Third Sink. How did you come about yours?”
“Simple,” Teal said, pulling something out of her pocket and holding it up: a rectangular prism of glass on a simple black cord. “I inherited it from someone who took a wash hunting ghosts in the barrens of the path above Third Sink.”
“My piece?” Rob blurted. “It was lost to the sinkbed!” He stepped forward to take it, but Teal placed it back in her pocket.
“It never was,” she explained. “It was on you when you flopped, delirious, into the lifeboat. I told you of Bobat’s treachery? He executed it using the piece he took off of you while you were incapacitated. We thought it was lost again after our battle with Qliomatrok, but it was picked up from the ice rubble.” There was a silent moment where all in the room knew Rob well enough to see his thoughts. He wanted his piece back, but didn’t yet know if it was prudent to make an issue of it. “I claimed it as inheritance, along with everything else you left behind when you chased vengeance down that dark crevasse. You insisted on being dead in all your letters, so I had you declared as such. If you were to take the piece back now, it would mean you would have a claim to everything I’ve made of your legacy. You could take my ship. You could pull the bedsheets out from under me.”
“And we both know I won’t be doing that,” Rob said to stop her from rubbing it in. She could just gift it back to us. Don’t say it. They’re not here to mock. They came with smiles even though you mailed them a gravestone. Let them be the help they came to be. “Why have all of you come?”
“To steal everything that be not…” Dawn said, picking up Rob’s emerald toenail, “nailed down. Ahahahaha!” She flicked it away. Fayme jumped out from behind the dresser and snatched it out of the air. “Bloody topa! You’ve gone and got a wolptinger? I thought you were a haund man.”
“I’ve had to try new things after my rise from the Pipes.”
“We’re here to help you in your heist,” Teal said, steering the conversation back to his question. “You sounded so pathetic and desperate in your letter. Permission to tell the others you were still alive was obviously supposed to translate to ‘I’m in over my bald head again and I need my old crew to bail me out.”
“Are we really going after the golden trickle bead?” Roary asked.
“Aye,” Rob confirmed. “I’ve got the royal flush’s daughter as my employer. Two associates by my side as well. They’re downstairs preparing as we speak. We leave in a day for the cream filling. As mentioned in my letter, it is suicide. Only appropriate for me because I’ve cheated death once already. I don’t know if I can allow you to risk your lives on my count.”
“So impassioned,” Teal said plainly. She already knew his tone. The pompous old fool was just mulling things out loud, playing with a moral angle like a fly in his soup. “We’re doing it on our own counts as well. You left my crew with an itch for rule-breaking and adventure that I’ve been forced to sate every now and again. This should satisfy them for a good long while. Besides, if we succeed and the flushess is restored to power, surely that will open up some very interesting business opportunities for the Employer. She’ll be grateful and I’ll be offering a friend’s discount on Aych water.”
“That does make sense,” Rob admitted. “Smarter than anything I’d do.”
“You would’ve taken the opportunity to steal something extra,” Roary snickered.
“Are we not doing that too?” Dawn asked. Her bare teeth and jawbone made it impossible to discern if it was a jest.
“It will be tempting,” Rob chuckled back, but his smile faded. “Wait a drip. You’ve come through the Reflecting Path, but it’s the entire reflection of Porce. It should’ve taken you at least a couple rinses to get this far.”
“We’ve invented a new method of travel,” Teal explained, “and I expect you to keep it a secret. We don’t think the rest of Porce will use it wisely.”
“My lips are sealed,” Rob assured, “as are my teeth behind them.” We guarantee it’s nothing on our secrets Teal. You don’t know what’s oozing on the throne at the top of the tower.
“Do you remember your flight from Dhonshui with Alast?” she asked.
“No forgetting that. We rode ekapad lightning! Across the World Floor in less than a night. It took those special armored suits though. Are you saying…” The pirate thought it through and then smacked himself in the forehead. “How could I be such a first-swipe wipe? It’s so obvious. You’ve ridden the reflected ekapads within the path. They’re less solid, with no life of their own, and the lightning was probably no danger.”
“It didn’t even tickle,” Bonswario added.
“We’re setting up a web across the world,” Teal elaborated, “one outpost at a time. We tear the mirrors out of their fixtures within the path and move them vast distances on the reflected ekapads. We can set one down anywhere. There are mirrors on the Employer leading straight to the other sinks and all the toils. One of the first I installed was a permanent puddle here in the base of Rinlatour. When we entered your reflection was already waiting for us; he guided us here.”
Rob leaned past them and nodded to his reflection respectfully. It winked in response and disappeared about its business. Just a fraction of our depth, but a fraction of Captain Kilrobin Ordr is still plenty of mysteries and missions. Something occurred to the Captain, despite it having to fight past his immediate world-trotting ambitions.
“Speaking of Alast, where is he? And his better half for that matter?” The others shuffled their feet. His spirits bobbed in the tide of fresh ideas. “Come now! You’re telling me Alast, the boy who collects death wishes like marbles, passed up an adventure like this?
“They would’ve joined us,” Dawn explained, “but they had other business needed attending. Pearlen got a letter from her parents. They’d somehow read about her being on the deck of the Employer, seeing as we’re fancy businessfolk what hardly ever stab anybody now.”
“The letter said her father was extremely ill,” Roary said. “He wanted to see his daughter one last time. So Alast and Pearlen are on their way to them; they live outside the Glass Desert somewhere. We got a mirror what took them real close to the glass, so they might not stay too long. Whoever has the piece of the path can pop over to the Employer and then over to the desert every now and again, see if they’re back. We might see them in Rinlatour. Alast wouldn’t say anything in front of Pearlen, but he told me he’d rather be here a hundred times.”
“Ah, well, family is still one of those concepts valued by folk, isn’t it?” Rob lamented. “I knew a family of sorts in the Pipes; I can tell you they were nothing but trouble. The idiot’s kind. It all started with those brighted bones I snagged on the way down…” Rob couldn’t help himself from moving right into the tale. Long had they waited for the full version, and the full version was what they would get, not the overflowing one where one nasty drop went over the side, climbing instead of falling, landing in the lungs of the royal flush. Rob would correct that now, with a little help from the Employer.
Continued in Part Two