Captain Rob Robs (Part Four)

back to part one

(reading time: 1 hour, 30 minutes)

That Feeling on Deck

The next couple of days were a flurry of activity the likes of which the rundown house had almost never seen. Folk don’t realize how important all the small sounds of a crowd can be to their sanity. If they are surrounded on all sides they naturally expect to hear tiny coughs, whispered jokes, obnoxious laughs, and shuffling. That was why crowds, even important ones, had never assembled inside the rundown house. It sucked all those small sounds away and made every gathering feel like a mass grave.

The thieves currently occupying it had little time to dwell on this unsettling phenomenon, as they were in and out in large numbers at all times of the day. There were many on Teal’s crew left over from the Greedy Old Mop, and they were delighted to, once the gateway mirror had been moved from the spread to the filling, get their hands dirty once again. It was especially because they could do their filthy part in the plan and be back on the Snyre to wash their hands of it within drips.

The library door was removed from its hinges to make way for all the pirates coming in and out. The sheer amount of them unsettled Dianarhea, she worried their secrets might pollute the waters of the house, but there was little she could do except remind them to never step outside. As long as nobody who hadn’t entered the front door came out of it they would hopefully avoid suspicion.

Captain Rob was forced to endure reunions for two days straight as his old crewfolk laid eyes on him for the first time since he’d disappeared down a dark icy crevice in the Winchar Straits. Some of them grinned and shook his hand, fully aware that he’d been up to no good the entire time and had probably been kicked out of the underworld for it like a common deviant expelled from a bathhouse.

Some cried at the sight of him and embraced him, jabbing themselves in the gut or sides when they didn’t expect his claws or remember the spike on his back. They all wanted to hear his stories, his proof of the gods eight, and at first Rob didn’t mind recounting most of the adventure. Within the walls of the rundown house he had to use his most grandiose voices and gestures just to get the weight of it all across. Each time he came to the end however, when he had to redact his bargain with the prosite Fixadilaran Bocculum, it soured the whole telling. It felt as if they were asking him to lie to their faces.

They can have the truth eventually. Our good deed can’t be done if any of them know we’re the cause. There’s always time for hatred when the dust settles. When he was done with each version of his tale he would turn away from his audience and examine the large shard of the Reflecting Path that Pearlen and Alast had so kindly gifted him. We have our way out when they don’t want to look at us anymore. It can take us to another hole somewhere, and maybe Porce won’t try and rip us out by the roots again.

His reflection wasn’t present in the shard, or any other glassy surface for that matter. He would’ve liked to see its knowing nod, its acknowledgment of his savvy escape strategy, but he understood it was off getting into its own trouble worthy of the Kilro line. It had gone off on its own on several prior occasions, but this time the Captain actually understood its goal.

Pearlen and Alast had explained the situation in great detail to both their current and former captain. Teal listened and was annoyed at the presence of a second enigmatic evil that would have to be dealt with. Rob was delighted that he wasn’t the only one roping his friends and family into risky ventures.

Pearlen’s parents had been swallowed up by a cult; their figurehead was some sort of brighted demon trapped in the Reflecting Path. It sought a way into Porce, and so was gathering path pieces from all across the land. They recounted nearly losing their lives twice, but also being guided to safety by Rob’s reflection.

I can’t just let this stand,” Pearlen had said, rage quaking in her cheeks. “Captain Teal, I beg your permission to go back with a few folk and find a way to stop her.” Teal was apprehensive about splitting their forces and focus, so Rob jumped in.

I’ll make the decision,” he offered. “Pearlen, I hereby grant you permission to take a few swords out to the desert and most likely die trying to cross blades with florent-beams.”

Begging your pardon Rob,” Pearlen said, not a trace of a smile to be seen, “but I’m on Teal’s crew.”

Aye, you are, but you’re also still technically on mine. I didn’t die and I never released you from service. Same as the others I’m allowing you to take.”

You’re not being funny,” Teal scolded. “We don’t know what this Whelm woman is capable of. You saw what that light did to the library table, and that was one piece. Need I remind you that we’ve set up a network of mirrored portals across the world? What if she were to access it?”

She can’t leave the path,” Alast offered. “Besides, I’d wager they stole most of the path pieces they’re using. Even if we have to abandon Crib-ohlk to its fate we can likely make off with dozens of them. It’d be worth more than a P.O.S!” This enticed Teal far more than sticking the Employer’s beak in someone else’s gibbering scriptures.

Eventually they got their permission, which only added to the chaos that Manathan had to organize back on the Employer. The frazzled gravefolk now had two parties of adventurers crossing from mirror to mirror at all drops of the day, using the new path pieces acquired by Alast and Pearlen. At first he tried to keep inventory of everything moving off the ship, but he lost count after the three hundredth piece of hard tack.

To be fair, he only lost track when Captain Rob emerged from the rundown house mirror and snatched a piece of the bread off an outgoing stack. He stuck the whole thing in his mouth and chewed for quite a long time, though he seemed bored of the taste after the first moment.

Captain Ordr!” the ice master exclaimed at the sight of him. “You’re a sight for sore sockets sir, but what are you doing? This is the day of the robbery! You should be preparing Captain.”

Ih am Masther Shuther,” the pirate mumbled through a mouthful of crumbs. He realized that they weren’t capable of absorbing any more of his mouth’s moisture, so he took out the chewed lump and tossed it through a random mirror, wishing it the best on its journey. He then held up his hand and removed his glove, revealing the disarray of his mangled green claws. They were quite long, and several of them had been cut partly through and dangled. “I’m in search of a blade that can straighten these out properly. The rundown house is nothing but fancy letter openers. I’m sure Teal has something Dagyvr-made around here that can handle the task. Besides, it’s an excellent chance to explore the new ship.”

He strode forward, heading for the one real door in the room, but Manathan got in his way. The skeleton turned it into an awkward embrace so that it didn’t look like obstruction. The Captain took a step back, bumping into someone passing by with a stack of freshly-steamed towels.

She has something aboard that steams towels?” Rob asked in disbelief. “Is this a Third Sink vessel or a hotel for the sensitive-skinned?” He snatched one off the stack and buried his face in its warm soft fibers. “Admittedly delightful.”

Captain, now’s not really a good time,” Manathan pleaded, slipping the towel out of the man’s hands and rapidly folding it. Rob ignored him and paced around the mirrors, yanking on the claw on his right hand that hung by the thinnest thread. He tried biting it before digging in with his fingers again, tugging on the digit so hard that every joint in it popped with a sound like a hammer flattening a tiny jingly bell. A drop later he was successful; the jagged triangle of dark mossy emerald split and flew across the chamber.

Ahh!” Alast exclaimed as he stepped out of the Glass Desert mirror. He looked down to see one of the fingernail’s corners lodged in his shirt. He plucked it out, rubbed the sting away, and then pocketed it. That a boy. Not disturbed by where it came from, only enthused about how much it’s worth.

Sorry I snagged you there,” the Captain apologized. “Clearly finding a blade to rectify this is most urgent. How are you feeling boy? Ready for today’s venture?” Alast wore a puzzled expression.

I wasn’t assigned to go to the auction house,” he claimed. “Pearlen didn’t want to risk facing her parents again for a while, so Teal picked her for your party. I’m supposed to scout out Crib-ohlk with Maryjohn and Herc.”

That’s exactly right,” Herc Monickr said, entering the room from its one actual door. “I’ll be ready to hit the glass with you in a moment Alast.”

No, no, no, that’s all wrong,” Captain Rob insisted. “You’re a much better thief than your girl, no offense to her. This is my operation and I need you. Run and tell her that you’re switching around. I want you back here to catch the last claw of my grooming with your shoulder. Then we’re off to the auction!” He grabbed the boy’s shoulders even before Alast could pull his other leg out of the mirror, turning him around and pushing him back in. “Now let’s have a look at the Employer.” The Captain strode past Manathan and Herc and down the clean corridor, nary a crack in the wood of its floor.

Herc, please go and stop him,” Manathan urged.

You’re captain while Teal’s over there,” the musician noted, “why not do it yourself? At least have the calcium in those bones to give me an order.”

Giving orders makes me feel itchy!” the ice master squawked. “You know Teal’s rule about him, her order, old as it is, so go and enforce it please Mr. Monickr!” The musician sighed. It would be his hide if he didn’t keep an eye on Rob, as Manathan had no hide to lose. He did as he was told, chasing Rob down just as he pulled open a pewter-handled door and observed the storage room for the bottles of rare sink-bottom water.

Very respectable cargo,” Rob muttered, closing the door and moving on. “Where do you keep the blades Mr. Monickr? I need to trim up.”

Rob, I have to advise you to stick to the corridors and deck. You’re not to open any more doors, seeing as you’re not an official member of the crew.”

I know how to keep secrets,” Rob said brusquely. “I kept yours didn’t I?” He moved to the next door and put his hand to pewter, but Herc’s covered his and gently pulled it away. “You’re serious?”

It’s just a precaution,” the musician explained. “Teal doesn’t allow guests down here; we have trade secrets now. Good ones too. Keeps us slipping on tile throughout the wash.”

I see.” Rob looked up at the blue ceiling, bisected by a black support beam. Teal wasn’t running a home or a place you could blow up with ill-advised bead experiments. This ship was a place of business. It was as cold and orderly as her, creaking less than an empty rocking chair. “What is the name of this precaution?”

Beg pardon?”

The name Herc. When you and Teal are discussing your beautiful savvy lives out here in the clean wind and glorious waves, what do you call this particular precaution that keeps big bumbling noses out of your business?”

It doesn’t have a name.”

Come now. If there’s one thing Teal and I have in common it’s taking a nearly perverse delight in naming things. We named the Greedy Old Mop, she named my haunds, and I would’ve let her give Alast his surname if he wasn’t such a whiner about it. What is the name of the precaution?”

The Rob rule,” Herc said after a stiff moment.

Son of a Diddleditch!” Rob barked. He stomped on the floorboards and wondered if it was one of the louder sounds the Employer had ever heard. He turned in a frustrated circle like an animal suddenly finding itself in a cage. What are we doing? Control. None of them had to come. This isn’t our ship. There’s nothing aboard it for us. There’s not an indent in her bedsheets. “Herc would you please fetch me something Dagyvr made so we can return?” The musician nodded and walked away, off to some part of the ship that wasn’t for guests.

He returned swiftly with a dagger that bore Dagyvr’s maker’s mark: a small ornate X indicating that the weapon was an abysmal failure, not the perfect blade he relentlessly sought. It was more than qualified for the job of trimming the pirate’s nails however. One by one Rob sliced them off and let them litter the floor of the Employer. Herc swept them up with his hand.

With nothing else to say to the man and no more excuse to be aboard, Captain Rob abruptly turned and stalked back to the mirror room. He caught Alast just as he emerged from the desert mirror once more, snagging his shoulder and pulling him the rest of the way. They stepped through the library mirror and into the rundown house.

What’s this one doing here?” Dianarhea asked. She was running around, handing out folded blue and gray uniforms.

There’s been a change of plan,” Rob said, patting the boy’s back. “Alast is part of today’s venture. He has the stickiest fingers this side of the Gummire.”

What about the girl?”

They swapped. No more girl. She’ll be running around the desert chasing mirages.”

He can’t leave with us; he never officially entered the rundown house. I promise you there are telescopes from neighboring balconies watching our every move.”

He’s playing the role of a boy assistant; nobody would’ve paid attention to his entrance even if he had been there. Don’t worry yourself.”

I don’t suppose he can wear this girl’s uniform,” Dianarhea grumbled, unfolding the one she had hoped to hand off to Pearlen. “There was a spare boy’s downstairs I think. I’ll be right back.”

Captain, what are the uniforms for? I thought you were disguised as economists,” Alast said.

We’ll be arriving that way, aye,” Rob explained. “At today’s auction the main items will be a series of ships recently repossessed from a scummy scum dealer. The wild imagination bead, our target, will be used to generate illusory but life-sized copies of the vessels. All the rich folk will get to take tours of what they’re purchasing. Dianarhea tells me that there will be illusory sailors as well, just to make the buyers feel like admirals. In the midst of the auction we will change disguises and pretend to be these imaginary sailors, allowing us to get within bubbles of the bead undetected.”

Who will have the bead?” Alast asked, already building a model of the heist in his head.

We have no idea.”

Will it even be out in the open?”

A mystery we’ll all solve together,” the Captain declared. “See? You’re just as prepared as the rest of us. You’ll have to hide the pieces of your sailor disguise under your other clothes. You’ll be dressed initially as my assistant, so go and get fitted by Ladyfish. I expect you downstairs shortly for my motivating speech.” Most of his old crew would’ve rolled their eyes; every planned robbery had to have a motivating speech beforehand. Rob thought it was the only thing that made them uncommon criminals rather than common ones. Sometimes, when he thought his words particularly motivating, he even called them rare criminals.

Alast didn’t mind; dramatic flair never hurt anything, especially on a stage as grand as Rinlatour. He scurried off to change. Rob went to his assigned bedroom to do the same. Teal had been kind enough to bring one of his furry green capes that had survived the Winchar Straits, the thing that made him feel the most like his old self, but he had to leave it on the bed for now, Fayme curled atop it. Economists didn’t wear capes. They wore puffy ascots, tiny spectacles, and shirts tucked in so tightly that freeing them sounded like popping a cork.

Time for your paint job Captain,” Ladyfish said as she let herself into the room after a knock he couldn’t hear. Rob stood still and held out his hands, fanning his fingers. Ladyfish was very talented at the cosmetic arts, though she rarely used them on herself. She had often handled the face powders, lipsticks, and shadow dust of any swashbucklers sent out on seduction assignments. For now all she needed was a tiny bottle of nontoxic white lacquer. She pulled out a toothpick-thin brush and began painting his emerald nails to a less-conspicuous shade.

It be good to be up to the old antics again,” she reminisced with a smile. “I’ve not felt like death was over me shoulder in an aker’s age. How long’s it been for you?” She paused, brush hanging in midair, when she arrived at his missing finger. Rob shifted his hand so she could get on with it.

There are two emissaries the master of death sends out,” Rob answered. “One is like us. He is cruel with a short attention span. If he sees something he wants he will chase after it only briefly, trying to snatch it as it runs. He waits in trapdoors under battlefields and family squabbles. If he takes you it was your fault. You have to admit that as you’re being dragged away, admit that he got you good.”

The other?” She moved on to his second hand.

The other one isn’t an opportunist. He just stands behind you, breathing in your ear, rubbing your shoulders in a painful massage, all the time. He wears you down, turns you into a dropglass and reminds you that you always have less sand than you did the day before.” Ladyfish moved closer; it was time for his teeth. “The second one has been on me since I fell down that damned crack in the ice… My point anyway is that he’s not the fun one. We seek the fun one today. He’ll have to grin and shake his head, admit that we got him good.” She stuck the brush in his mouth to quiet him. One by one she pulled it across his teeth and made them a normal glossy white.

Should we use these two forms of death to motivate the others? It would have no effect; they’re not dying. They get to do it all at once, perhaps twice. We’ll need something else to offer them. This is a chance to be heroes. We get to destroy a broken economy and reinstall a significantly less-broken one. The heroism can’t touch Captain Kilrobin Ordr though. He already shook hands with Fixadilaran Bocculum. He’s infected.

A short while later they were all gathered in the foyer and dressed in their finest disguises. It was an auction rather than a research summit, so it would be difficult for the flush’s daughter to justify every last ‘consulting economist’ she’d brought with her. The full party would be limited to just Herself, Captain Rob, Teal, Skuldug, Claudize, and Alast. Dawn would follow along in the Reflecting Path, carrying a mirror in order to set up a contingency escape route.

Rob stood before them, ready to give his speech, but was unsettled by the positioning. Teal was right next to him and Dianarhea was on the opposite side. They were both positioned as if they commanded the robbery party. It’s not a matter of ego; there needs to be a singular authority to avoid confusion. He held out his hand, urging Teal to stand next to the others. She found the energy for half a roll of her eyes, but acquiesced. He did the same for Dianarhea, but she didn’t get the message.

Miss Diana, if you would please step over there with the others.” She crossed her arms. Her expression suggested that getting near Skuldug might permanently infuse her gown with the odor of a humus-washed tilefolk underarm. It was a beautiful dress to be sure: blue and silver like fog over the sea. She also wore a tiara loaded with clear spherical diamonds, like pearls formed in the eyes of storms. A scarf thinner than most ideas wound around her neck and both her arms.

What? Why? I’m the one bankrolling this endeavor; I’m not one of your grunts.”

There are no grunts here,” Rob fired back, “only the simpering giggles of high-on-itself society. In order for our disguises to be convincing you must at least be friendly with them. Besides, it is tradition for me to deliver a speech and you will benefit from it just as much as the others.”

Fine, but only because we haven’t the time to argue,” she grumbled, taking two giant strides across the room and standing with the others. She towered over them; one cock of her hip might have bowled the whole party over.

We are wronging a right,” the Captain began, pacing back and forth in front of them, hands behind his back. He was careful not to scratch off his nail polish. “Rinlatour has redefined its right and wrong, swapped them around. The greediest, the foulest, the rudest, and the most lacking of lackeys are rising like soda bubbles and popping at the top with what I am sure is the grossest stench.

That’s why it’s up to us, a collection of inoffensively gross people, to mimic their depravity in order to draw close. We will wrong this new right one bead at a time. We will stop this callous cascade of coin and reap the consequences, be they benefits or not.

Whatever the exact nature of the nightmarish creature responsible, no matter where it came from, we will end its rule. Our rewards: righteous vindication, fame, connections, tile, and of course,” he nodded to Dianarhea, “justice and familial honor.” She nodded back.

Just the tile for us thanks,” Skuldug said.

Why do you always have to have the last word?” the Captain asked the tilefolk. “My last word was honor. Much more uplifting than thanks. Let’s get moving before anyone else has thoughts they need to share.”

The Bouillonr auction house was not easily missed. Its front doors were flanked by wooden columns usually reserved for the architecture of courts or parliaments. A giant clock stood above the doors, displaying the day’s schedule rather than the time. Whenever an auction ended a worker removed a glass panel from behind the clock and replaced it with a new one. That day’s panels, crossed over by hands of pure gold, bore mostly ships sailing on waves of blue and green glass.

As the robber party arrived they finally got a sense of the delicate task ahead of them. There were bergfolk everywhere, nary any other kind of folk, so they stuck out like bruises on milk-complexioned fruit. They received dark stares before they’d even fully disembarked their carriages. Gone were the trees surrounding the rundown house, replaced with noisy street corners, stone edifices of bergfolk faces with right-angle noses, and the traffic generated by the auction.

The air was charged with hostility and there was a commotion at the auction house’s doors. Its security was having trouble deciding exactly who to let in thanks to the rising of the poisoned chaff. Unsavory characters with patchy fur and facial scars had put on their brand new formal wear and demanded entrance. The auctions were normally invitation only, but the major qualification had always been financial security. The guards couldn’t refuse anyone who opened their pockets and showed enough gold for any royal flush to bathe in.

Luckily, their own entrance went smoothly. Dianarhea was met at the doors by one of the co-owners of the house: Piquad Bouillonr. He was thin, even for a bergfolk, and lacking in beard. The latter quality made him look practically chinless among his kind. The young man bowed to the flush’s daughter and offered a humble whistle through his nose as he went.

Always a pleasure to have the flushess with us,” he said. “I must ask who the rest of your party is.”

Come now Piquad,” she cajoled, “you keep yourself informed. These are a few members of my newly-gathered financial investigation team. We all know something is amiss.”

Yes. The money is changing hands a lot lately. It does seem like it’s passing through something other than hands as well.” His eyes darted to the side, toward a man trying to argue his way into the auction house without giving up his spike-rimmed bucket hammer. “I shouldn’t speak of it.”

Please do,” the flushess insisted. “My team can’t do much of anything without information. Tell me of your suspicions.”

Well we haven’t seen your father here in quite some time. You’ll recall that he often rang our opening bell. He had you do it when you were small, I’m told.”

Yes, I remember that day despite still being in infancy. I’d never heard a more beautiful peel than that bell. It was the shake of hands, every finger wearing a jeweled ring. It was prosperity for the deserving. It’s what we used to have.”

The authorities from the sugar on top say he is doing very well, yet nobody has seen him,” Piquad said. “Is he well, flushess?”

No,” she answered darkly, “but my powers to make decisions over both family affairs and city affairs have not activated. The doctors and lawyers have deemed my father to be of sound mind and body. It is a technicality. There is a consistent intelligible mind in there, and the body still walks, but it is not my father.”

I knew it!” the young bergfolk hissed through gritted teeth and with clenched fists. “Familaqua najala transpriquay sole Odettr mantea!

So you see, there’s no reason for you to harass me at your door,” Dianarhea reasoned. “We’re gathering information today, separating the sweet-worms from the serponts.”

Of course flushess. You have my support one hundred percent,” Piquad insisted in a whisper. Something shifted in his pocket, causing him to look down. A square coin jumped out and fluttered around. He tried to grab it back, but it disappeared between his fingers and was gone. “Ninety-nine percent,” he groaned. “Just know that some of my own family is not so unsettled. They’re adjusting too well. Stay clear of Basaltico.” The flushess nodded and walked past him; her train of specialists followed.

On their way in Rob, with one flick of his fingers, signaled Claudize and Alast to break away. Their first job was to find an isolated mirror somewhere within the compound. Dawn was instructed to follow Claudize’s reflection and meet up with them to establish their escape route. Really only Alast was required for the task, but a lone young lightfolk in the most exclusive bergfolk auction house might raise suspicions, so he needed a big-nosed companion.

There’s a water closet two lefts down that way,” Alast whispered in the Captain’s ear when they returned. The party had just reached the empty chamber where the boats would be auctioned off. “It’s under repair so it’s dark and empty. Dawn has successfully connected it to the Employer.” Rob nodded and waved the boy away.

The crowd wasn’t kept waiting long. Two guards escorted another member of the Bouillonr family to the podium at the end of the room. Rob knew from Dianarhea’s profiles that this was Basaltico: uncle to Piquad. His head had gone mostly bald; what hair he had left cascaded over his ears, curled, and met with the high collar of his satin black jacket. There was a pink flower pinned over his heart that was made up of more than a hundred petals.

Not petals. Flaked weathering. That’s it! He’s wearing the wild imagination bead. We can’t just snatch it though. Any moment he’ll start using it to produce the items up for bid. Grabbing it off him would surely interrupt the illusions. His crew knew bath beads when they saw them, so it only took a few drips for the information to pass through them. Dianarhea was the last to be made aware, and she bit her lip at the news.

He’s never been a friend,” the flushess muttered to Teal. “Once called my father a pilisitua.”

You fancy folk don’t call your friends that?” she asked. “That’s practically a wedding invitation where we come from.”

Bienvenelat lavente auxenchequa decet aprimidea!” Basaltico boomed in front of the crowd. They all stilled. One of the guards leaned over and whispered in the auctioneer’s ear, telling him that the presence of several lightfolk might necessitate using Wide Porcian. “Welcome to this afternoon’s auction,” he repeated, less enthusiastically outside his native tongue. “I’m pleased to see many of our staples here today. The noble Wiminizrs…” he bowed to a woman in a shimmering gold gown with a gold painted nose.

It would be best if he didn’t spot me,” Dianarhea told Teal, turning away from him.

Tlinalingus Quadr hello,” he continued. “Oh and of course the Flushess Dianarhea.” She winced and turned back around, waving to the crowd. “I wasn’t expecting you today; word is you’ve been doing charity work down in the lower levels of the city. Very noble of you; I trust the work has your pockets overflowing.”

I wouldn’t know,” she responded, hushing those around even further. “Pockets aren’t in fashion this season.” She patted the seamless sides of her gown. The bergfolk laughed politely. Basaltico resumed his opening speech.

Gentlefolk, we have three vessels up for sale in this block today, each with its own storied history. If this is your first time with us allow me to explain procedure. As the ships don’t fit through our front doors they will be recreated in illusion down to the last detail. My associates will give you a tour of each one and provide its history. Do have your bidding paddles at the ready, as offers will be accepted at first wave crest. Sanset plu tartequa…

Basaltico clapped his ashen hands. A geyser of water emerged from the bead, spraying rainbows and mist in an arc across the room. False water rose around the crowd’s ankles, quickly reaching their waists. A tiny ship shot out of the bead, growing to about the size of a tilehoof before it struck the water and circled the edges of the room.

This is the Etranglecoll,” Basaltico identified it. Its hull was gray-green, but the railing on deck was yellow ochre. Its sails unfurled and it picked up speed. The sails were not of topa or canvas, but thin sheets of a non-reflective metal. Its rigging was square chains instead of rope. Everything that could be damaged by freezing had been replaced with something sturdier, suggesting the vessel was meant for the coldest waters. Rob admired it as it streaked by. The name translates to ‘Chokechain’. Have I heard that name before? We certainly had friends who could produce tough floaters like that.

Up next is the Ireproclequa!” Basaltico shouted. Another illusion popped out of the bead and splashed down. This vessel was far more flamboyant, tipped with a bergfolk figurehead with large outstretched mechanical arms. They were likely rope-operated machines for loading things on deck without having to use the ramps. Ornate wooden flowers wreathed its railing, painted in the pinks, yellows, and whites of a spring in Darid’s Arid. The bird’s nest was covered in dried plant fronds, making it look very much like its namesake.

And last for the day is the Docdrivrestet.” Out came the last boat illusion. It was a strange vessel, wide and flat like an outdated barge raft. It must have been owned by a very lazy crew, for there were spiral staircases going up the masts. Not a soul aboard would ever have to climb the rigging. And these other two are called the ‘Blameless’ and the ‘Dockdrifter’. They are assuredly unfamiliar. Were we our old selves and had we pick of the litter… the Chokechain. Come to think of it, why don’t we? The flushess has promised us incredible rewards if we stop Fixadil. A new ship doesn’t even rise beyond the credible.

Once all three ships had circled the room like prancing laggeren, they grew once more, adopting the actual scale of their real selves, docked all the way down near the drain. The walls of the Blameless expanded past the robber party, engulfing them, placing them firmly in a recreational cabin. A few other guests were there with them, witnessing the budding of the blue-uniformed illusory sailors, bergfolk, tile, and light, as they crawled out of the floorboards and started playing games around them.

If you would please join me on our tour of the Ireproclequa,” a bergfolk woman said as she stepped out of the wall. It was easy to tell by her uniform that she was an employee of the auction house. “I can take bids as we go. If you’re interested in one of the other boats I’m afraid you’ll have to swim for it.” The guests chuckled, but one of them grumbled and walked right through a sailor and the nearby wall, swatting at the illusory faces with his paddle. I hope he isn’t going for the Chokechain; she’s ours.

Now’s our opportunity to shimmy out of these clothes,” Skuldug whispered to Rob. He nodded and moved through the party slyly, tapping the elbows of those who hid sailor uniforms under their current disguises. The party split in two, with Dianarhea, Teal, and Claudize holding the auctioneer’s attention while the others slipped away and changed.

Rob, Skuldug, and Alast passed through the wall behind the tour group and started searching for a secluded place within the illusion. There were plenty of sailors that came and went, but none with actual minds. While the bead replicated the sounds of crashing waves and creaking wood perfectly, it didn’t seem capable of giving the sailors voices, so the figments merely smiled and waved.

There, a bedroom!” Skuldug said, pointing a clawed finger. She barreled through the closed door, already ripping off her oppressive stuffy disguise. Rob and Alast were right behind. The Captain theorized that the previous owner of the Blameless ran a theater troupe, as the walls were lined with racks of costumes. He pictured pompous actors delivering monologues from the hands of the ship’s figurehead. He saw brightly-colored vomit, the result of too much partying after a successful show, splashing over the sides and blending harmlessly with the boat’s garish color scheme.

Captain? Is there a problem?” Alast asked, pulling him from his daydream. The boy had already donned his new shirt and tossed the green one into the mess of costumes.

No, none at all. Just remembering the feeling of being on deck.” We should’ve gone up top on the Employer, felt real wind on our face. Rob scrambled to catch up to the other two, ripping off his clothes and unfolding the hidden ones. He was in his long underwear, pulling up the legs of his new white pants, when a bergfolk man wandered through the door. He stared, glass of green toil water in his hand, mouth agape. He had a paddle sticking out of his pocket, so he was just another face in the crowd hoping to buy the Blameless.

Shame on you,” Rob told him darkly. “Stepping into a private bedchamber without being invited.”

I didn’t know they simulated this part…” the guest mumbled. He also didn’t know if there was any actual shame in it; his eyes wandered to Skuldug’s ruffled underwear.

They only do it to check for peepers,” Alast said, picking up Rob’s thread. “And since you are one sir I suggest you leave this auction immediately before the Bouillonrs are forced to make an example of you.” The man didn’t know how to respond, and a moment later there came a voice from just outside the door. It sounded just like the woman giving the tour.

This is the bedroom, but we won’t go in there until the occupants emerge; that would be most inappropriate.” The guest fumbled with his glass as he rapidly tiptoed through the costumes and the wall behind them. None of these illusions were even attractive enough to risk the shaming.

You really do fake that well,” Alast complimented Skuldug. “I thought she was out there for a drip. Heart practically stopped.”

You’re not the first man to call me a heart-stopper,” she warbled, donning her sailor’s hat and putting its brim at a playful angle. “Now where’s our beady boy? I want out of these boats before another blighter gawps at my bloomers.”

He’s still in this chamber somewhere,” Rob guessed, “but I lost track when the ships expanded. Presumably one Bouillonr is leading one tour group through each vessel and he is leading one of the remaining two. We have to jump ship.” The other two nodded. With their new outfits complete they followed the path of the peeping guest and quickly found themselves standing waist deep in the false water once more. Staying silent to avoid drawing attention, Rob pointed to the Chokechain and waded in its direction. The recreation of the tin-sailed ship had sunk into the floor somewhat, as its tour group was now on the deck. Golden paddles rose and fell periodically, but they couldn’t quite see the bergfolk at the front of them.

Wait, isn’t that Basaltico over there?” Alast hissed, pulling on Rob’s sleeve and pointing. The Dockdrifter had similarly descended for a tour of the deck; Basaltico’s distinct collar was partly visible through the forest of furry bergfolk necks.

Be that as it may, we don’t wish to strike yet,” the Captain said, eyes darting between the two ships. “We want them to go back below decks so the walls can be used as cover. We look suspicious here in the water, so hurry up.” They stayed their course, eventually stepping onto the deck of the Chokechain.

Looks like there were a few men overboard,” one of the bergfolk at the back joked, unaware of their solidity. The three robbers stood in a line and saluted, staying frozen until the guest got bored with their jest and turned back to the auction. The Captain bolted away as soon as they turned, walking along the deck, wishing he could actually feel the chains and judge their toughness.

His eyes locked onto the wall of the chamber, which didn’t look like a wall at all. The wild imagination bead had turned it into an oceanic horizon with swooping, blazing, crimson stars fishing their breakfast out of the surf. Rob took the deepest breath he could, inhaling past the point of comfort when it refused to give him that clean smell of fresh water and tilestone. The spike on his rib cage stuck him and doubled him over; he was forced to hold back a cough because illusions didn’t even need to breathe.

Captain?” Alast grabbed his sides in an effort to support him. For a moment Rob assumed he had pushed the boy away, but when he looked to his left with watery eyes he saw the young man still standing there. Can we not do this on our own anymore? We can bonepick! Surely we can hold ourselves up.

I’m fine Alast; step back.” He did as he was told. “I was just struck by that feeling again.” His voice quieted further, so much so that Skuldug couldn’t hear him as she pretended to swab the deck with an imaginary mop. “Tell me Alast, were I the owner of this ship and in need of recruits, would you leave the Employer and join me?”

I would want to Captain,” he answered swiftly and honesty, “but it would depend on what Pearlen would want. It’d be a thrilling life on either boat I imagine, but my thrills are halved without her.” Rob nodded.

And now for the storied history of this vessel…” the Bouillonr leading the tour boomed. It was clearly the part they were most excited to memorize.

Let’s get closer,” Rob told the other two. “I want to hear this.” He snuck a glance at the Dockdrifter to make sure its lower levels hadn’t reappeared yet. Basaltico was making grand gestures, likely telling his ship’s history. All three presentations were synchronized now; they would end at the same point. We need to steal it before everything reconvenes. All these helpful walls will be gone in a splash. His nerves were grinding in a way they hadn’t for rests, but that didn’t stop him from squeezing into the tour of the Chokechain’s accomplishments. His hand twitched, upset that it didn’t have a paddle to wave.

The Etranglecoll has never seen cloth sail,” the Bouillonr explained. “Its first Captain, Dizzy Daymr, carried a heavy rod of magnetized bath bead and iron ore that she used to raise and lower the sails in an instant. This rod is in our possession and is included with your purchase of the vessel. It looks like this.” The bergfolk raised his hand and snapped his fingers. The sound caught Basaltico’s eye from across the room. With a flick of his hand the wild imagination bead shot out a rod of gray ore and moss green crystal very similar in shade to Rob’s skeleton. The tour guide pretended to catch it. With a flourish he tapped its end on the deck. The group whirled around and saw the metal sails unfurl and pick up the imaginary wind. Any crew we could muster would be gravy. We could helm this ship on our own. Even if love and companionship abandoned us we would still be Captain Kilrobin Ordr. That’s a permanence those living sixteen never understood: permanent dignity. We won’t settle for anything less… if we’re well and truly out of the drain.

Dizzy Daymr sailed the Draining Sea around Slick Rin Drop, catching treasures that fell from the land atop our fixture,” the presenter continued, “including powerful items that required high-stakes decision-making. Many bath beads fell and she took it upon herself to use them, sell them, or drop them over the side. It is believed there is still a treasure trove of sunken beads under her old route, and who knows, perhaps she kept coordinates to them hidden aboard this very ship.”

That’s likely just salesfolk talk,” Rob mumbled, “and it’s extremely effective.” He turned to Alast. “Stay here, but feel free to make a move on Basaltico if you find opportunity.”

Where are you going?”

To have a quick chat with our sponsor.” The Captain didn’t want to risk wading through the waters again, but he didn’t have to now that he would be moving alone. He crouched behind the wealthy cluster of bergfolk and rolled onto his back. Utilizing bonepicking he lifted himself up onto his nine fingertips and the heels of his boots so he could scuttle, nearly flat, back into the water, which was easily high enough to hide him from view.

The illusion of the water’s surface was so complete that it even wiggled the light of the lamps above. The simulated sounds of stirred waves and froth were all about him as if he’d stuck his head in a giant seashell. His goal, the feet of those aboard the Blameless, was in sight; all he had to do was rotate and scuttle on until he found the pair he wanted. He remembered Dianarhea’s shoes as delicate things with curved silver buckles, and when he recognized their shine he delicately inserted himself between the woman’s towering legs.

The flushess, both bored with the tour and nervous over their caper, practically lost her eyes to gravitation when she glanced down and saw a lightfolk nose sticking out of the deck of the Blameless. A moment later it lifted, revealing the whole head of Captain Rob.

What are you doing?” she growled at him.

I need to speak with you, briefly, about my compensation,” Rob explained.

You’ll be compensated when there’s something to show for all these antics!”

Aye, but I’d like you to acquire that compensation now. I desire the Chokechain for my services. You’ll need to head over there and outbid the others.”

That’s ridiculous; I don’t even have a paddle, and I won’t raise a finger to-”

One moment.” Rob’s head vanished.

What? Where did you go?” Dianarhea delicately swept her foot around under the illusion, but the man was gone. She searched frantically only to spot his arm as it shot up out of the floor, stole a paddle from a pocket, and vanished again. The flushess widened her stance once more, as if a mount was about to erupt under her and carry her off somewhere. The paddle came up first, so she snatched it out of his hand to encourage his face to make an appearance.

There, now you have a paddle,” Rob said as his nose broke the surface.

The paddle doesn’t matter! We barely have the funds for this operation, never mind purchasing flashy boats!”

Focus Rob; I’ll just buy you a boat when it’s all over,” Teal said, her face butting in. When she leaned over her long black hair nearly tickled the Captain’s nose.

I don’t need a pity pinnace,” Rob spat. “I can earn my own thank you very much. I want to be just like you when I grow up Captain Powdr.” Teal rolled her eyes and stood back up, throwing herself into the tour earnestly alongside Claudize.

If you want the boat, that’s fine,” Dianarhea relented, one hand kneading her brow. “We can’t buy it now, but it’s not leaving the Draining Sea. When everything’s back to normal I’ll buy it from whoever has it.”

Acceptable,” Rob said. “Don’t lose track; I’m quite fond of her already.”

Don’t you have something to steal?”

Always.” His head glided down and away, the nose disappearing last like the dorsal fin of a thrish. He started creeping back, but the water level rose significantly, enough for him to get on his hands and knees for a speedier crawl. The tours were heading back below decks. As much as he wanted to see the Chokechain’s interior, time did feel a touch stretched. He headed instead for the side of the Dockdrifter. When he reached the curved hull he stood tall, straightened his uniform, and stepped through.

The Dockdrifter was easily the most boring of the three. Its rooms were wide, empty, and utilitarian. The floors looked new. All of the barrels and crates stored in the corners were the same dark color scheme as the boat itself. Who in Porce is this for? It’s got no character; it’d be like sailing a dry whetstone.

Rob passed through a few more walls, following the sound of Basaltico’s voice, until he found Alast and Skuldug standing on either side of an open door. The Captain glanced inside and recognized the backs of the tour group. A few illusory sailors walked straight through the pirate and into the room, setting themselves about mopping the already immaculate floor.

Good, you made it over here,” he whispered to them. “What’s going on in there?”

They’re yapping about employing sailors down near the drain,” Skuldug informed him. “Now’s our chance; they got a bunch of the uniforms in there acting the slave to impress them. Nobody’ll notice us.”

Alast, you’re on deck. You’ve got plenty of experience pretending to clean ships,” Rob said, reaching down and ripping a white piece of cloth from the back of his uniform. He tossed it to the boy. He caught it, but just barely. Alast was always pale, but he looked ghostly at the moment. His hands trembled slightly and his eyelids fluttered. “What’s wrong with you?”

Nerves?” Alast guessed, clearly confused by what had come over him. “Haven’t snatched anything in a while. I’m ready though.” He balled up the rag, took a deep breath, and walked into the room. Rob and Skuldug watched from outside, dropping to their knees and sticking single eyes through the wall.

Alast moved along the edge of the crowd, wiping the walls with his rag. He used circular motions like the other mindless cleaners, but had to be careful that no loose end flapped into the wall. He lurched forward, embedding his head in a painted picture of Rinlatour. Steady yourself boy. He quickly recovered, turning and walking off to another wall. He passed behind Basaltico, looking for an angle, finding none. But he had clearly found something, for his heavy-lidded eyes were suddenly wide with shock.

The boy circled around the other side of the crowd, shuffling as fast as he could without breaking the disguise. His shoulder passed through the frame of the door before Captain Rob could grab him and pull him out of sight.

What happened? You were right there!”

I’m sorry Captain,” the boy said. His voice sounded simultaneously dry and drenched, like topa soaking up seawater. “I saw a face I recognize: Pinwhistle Walkr.” (Blaine’s Note: For those of you who don’t remember, Pinwhistle was encountered in our first bathroom break. She is the daughter of one Gig Walkr, a man robbed by Rob enough times to leave him with an impression and little else.)

You’re joking,” Rob grumbled as he dragged a hand down his face. “You’re certain she’ll recognize you? You don’t leave that much of a mark.”

I don’t want to risk it,” Alast said breathlessly. “Skuldug will have to go; Pinwhistle knows your face too Captain.”

You stay,” Rob told Skuldug as she readjusted her hat and prepared to enter. He turned back to Alast. “Which side was the girl on?” Alast pointed. “I’ll go and just stay turned away. Hand over the rag.” Alast did as ordered. Rob had to suppress the urge to criticize him; it was almost muscle memory to do so whenever he saw the boy had an unsullied rag. It meant he’d carted his cleaning supplies all around the Greedy Old Mop, staying very busy but cleaning nothing. The rag is clean because the boat is fake. Everything here is fake except for that bead. It is the center of our world. Just orbit it until it can orbit us.

The pirate took a deep breath, winced at the jab in his side, and strode into the room. He thought he might have an easier time of it now that they’d broken up into clusters to examine the different corners of the chamber. Basaltico was only with one of them. Rob put himself near a wall and scrubbed for a few drips, stretching his arm this way and that to disguise his glances about. He saw what was surely the back of Pinwhistle Walkr’s head, as there were very few lightfolk there. She was not in Basaltico’s group.

What is that brat even doing here? Her father had a fine ship last we heard. He hasn’t had any excess wealth swabbed up by the Mop in washes, so he can’t blame his misfortune on us any longer. This is a world away from Third Sink, so perhaps Gig’s business has grown uncontrollably without us keeping him neat and trimmed.

Rob crept closer to Basaltico. The bergfolk was listing off various types of worker’s contract, his hands dancing about an illusory sailor as if accentuating the curves of a nude bronze. Rob could see the wild imagination bead glowing softly as it maintained all three ships and their crews. The pirate realized he had no idea what would happen the moment he snatched it. Everything could vanish in an instant, leaving him, Skuldug, and Alast as the only grimy workers left standing around. Or perhaps the illusions would collapse into waves of color, giving them several drips of perfect cover for their escape.

There was no sense in waiting any longer. Rob stiffened his arm and wadded up the rag in his hand. He spun the arm in rapid circles powered by bonepicking, but kept them small to avoid attention. When sufficient energy had been built up he twisted his wrist unnaturally far and loosed the rag. It flew up into the air above Basaltico’s opposite shoulder, catching the auctioneer’s eye as it drifted back down, as well as the eyes of those around him.

Rob lunged silently, arm curving up Basaltico’s button line. His finger tapped the edge of the bead, but already the faces were turning back. There would’ve been enough time to snatch the bead and put it away in a pocket, but he couldn’t hide his face fast enough, not from the man that knew him. Gig Walkr was there, watching the peculiar rag, eyes already grazing Rob’s unmistakable beard and shining bald head.

The pirate recoiled empty-handed and turned away. That blasted idiot is here too! They made it a family affair! Curse all the families of the world for being less dysfunctional than ours! Rob scurried out of the room, back to his cohorts. He tried to lean up against the wall and catch his breath, nearly falling through it. Only bonepicking kept him from crashing to the floor and making a ruckus. He tried to speak, but instead grabbed his side and hissed. All this stress and twisting has our flesh aquiver; that damn spine’s thirsty for our blood.

Where is it?” Skuldug asked when she couldn’t locate the pink ruffles of the gem.

I don’t have it,” Rob growled. “That girl’s father is here too.”

I guess you two idiots know the whole of this fancy-undies party!” Skuldug moaned. “Boy, you go back in there but stay near the door. I’ll draw the bergy-boy out and you grab it right off his chest.” Alast nodded, tottering on his feet before actually moving. He stepped back inside and pretended to scrub the side of the door, despite no longer having a rag. Skuldug rubbed her bottom lip with both furry hands. She tapped her teeth one by one to make sure they were aligned properly.

Oh we could never afford a boat such as this!” she exclaimed, but in an entirely fabricated voice. Rob marveled at her talent once more. She sounded exactly like a middle-aged male bergfolk about to be jailed for trespassing. “Say my adorable little bubble-cup, do you think the mattress in here is real? Should we give it a test? Come here you!”

Skuldug flicked her tongue to reset her voice. She issued a high-pitched giggle that even had an angle to it, like a vapid woman being swept off her feet. Altogether it sounded just like two smitten fools who had somehow wormed their way into the auction and were about to jump each other’s bones in the middle of the proceedings. As she intended, it was exactly the sort of thing Basaltico could not abide overhearing.

Some folk just get too excited,” Basaltico told the whole room with a chuckle. “If you all will excuse me a drip. Just admire the molding until I return.” Even though he could’ve passed straight through the wall he chose to head for the door, even angling out of the way of the false sailors, anything to keep the illusion intact and squeeze a few more tiles out of the bidders.

This was Alast’s chance. One of the false sailors was entering the room at the same time as Basaltico’s exit. They turned to accommodate each other; all the boy had to do was reach through the fake sailor and pluck the bead off Basaltico’s chest. His scrubbing hand stretched. It passed between illusory shoulder blades. His fingers twitched. Alast’s eyes rolled up into his head and his mouth stretched open in a silent wail. He no longer had the strength to grab. Or to stand.

Basaltico turned the corner and stalked off in the direction Skuldug had planted the voices. Alast collapsed forward through the side of the door frame. Skuldug caught him and draped one arm over her shoulder. It was pure luck that the bergfolk rounded a corner without looking back. Rob cradled Alast’s chin with his thumb and a finger, lifting the boy’s head and looking into his eyes. He hung onto consciousness by a wet thread.

What’s wrong with him?” Skuldug whispered.

I have no idea,” Rob admitted. “He needs medicinal attention. Take him back to Teal and get him out of here. I’ll handle the bead.” The tilefolk nodded and dragged Alast through the hull. Something’s rotten here, but we’ve no time to figure out what. If Bouillonr goes back in that room we’re finished. The pirate took several gliding leaps toward his best guess at Basaltico’s exact position. Bonepicking kept his boots from making noise. The jumps were high enough to push his head through the ceiling and put it on the Dockdrifter’s deck.

He paid no attention to walls and corners. All we need is the right silent angle. We’ll just be an arm flickering through a wall for one drip. He’ll think it nothing more than a slip of his own concentration: a piece of dust caught in the illusion. Rob barely finished the though when he dropped into the same chamber that held the auctioneer. The bergfolk’s head was on a swivel, checking every corner for the disruptive voices. Rob touched down behind him with less sound than a feather landing. His nine fingertips touched the floor and took much of his weight. Basaltico was tall enough that his peripheral vision didn’t extend below his knees, so that was where the pirate stayed.

Rob spun his body in a fraction of a drip, supporting himself with one flat hand and his heels. His other hand shot up Basaltico’s chest, just barely avoiding the fabric of his clothes. His finger nudged the bead. Gyaaaahh! Don’t make a sound. Don’t make a… Rob was gripped by an incredible pain that nearly blasted him out of the waking world. It felt like a red hot javelin in his side. His arm collapsed, putting his back to the floor. It was an unrivaled display of willpower to both keep his eyes open and his mouth shut. Basaltico’s head seemed to triple and bend this way and that like a tree bearing anchors as fruit.

If they’re not on my boat they’re not my problem,” Basaltico muttered, still thinking himself alone. He turned to leave. His toes were about to strike the pirate, so Rob forced his will down to a pinpoint, pretending the bergfolk’s toenails were the executioner’s axe. Rob slid across the floor stiff as a board. He bonepicked straight through three chambers, and that put him back below the waves, the seashell sound filling his ears again. We can’t stand; we’ll be seen.

Bleurck!” Blood spurted out of his mouth and landed wetly across his cheek and beard. He gasped for air, feeling all the pockets and bubbles in his throat. Some of it was air. More of it was blood. Pain and panic were mixed in as well. His head felt both heavy and light. The punctured sensation had not abated and breathing only made it worse. Of all times. It’s finally happening. The emerald that has long threatened our lungs has finally made good. It has grown a bubble too long; we bonepicked too much in the wrong direction.

All thoughts of acquiring the bead were gone; he needed a plan just to survive. His breaths could only be one tenth their normal size. Walking and crawling were impossible, so the only resource he had left was bonepicking. Rob pushed his soul, which felt fuzzy and thin, to the crown of his skull. It was enough to drag him along the smooth seabed, hopefully in the intended direction. He shot for the Blameless once more, tilting his head and searching for the feet of Teal or Dianarhea.

Every shoe looked like three and every dress train like a serpont-skin peeling away layer by layer. When Rob slid across a wet patch he turned his cheek and smelled it. Blood. He was moving in a circle, marinating in his own fluids. His vision became so blurred that he couldn’t separate the motion of the water from the lights overhead. There was just one chance now, and he had to be close enough. The pirate raised a clenched fist and brought it down on the floor. He moderated the pressure as carefully as he could; he wanted it to have only the impact of an impatient stomp. Anything more would be too suspicious.

Several more times he did this, in a pattern. It was a universal oceanic code, and it could be issued in many ways: flags, light screens, cannon fire, and most relevantly, tapping. With luck none of these fancy bergfolk were actual sailors and they were just trying to purchase floating status symbols. Rob pounded on the ground once, twice, and then once: the cry for aid. Come on Teal. We know you’re bored out of your mind just standing around and looking gorgeous. Take this excuse to do something. Hear us. Hear us, damn it!

A pair of feet was headed in his direction. Rob squinted to focus, but all at once the pain and fatigue overwhelmed him and his eyes simply closed. His conscious mind dropped below the surface of a sea of thick blood. He was awash in an anoxic nightmare as his internal spike continued its colonization efforts in his chest cavity.

Teal’s shoe struck his side. She bent down and felt around him, only dipping her head under the water for a moment. She didn’t need time to assess. He was bleeding from the mouth and clutching his ribs. Long had she expected waking up at his side and finding such symptoms. She had no idea what was the matter with Alast, and if not for the order of their ailments she might have guessed it was a sympathetic affliction mimicking the Captain’s.

With swift grace she tied the end of her dress around one of Rob’s wrists. The illusory sailors were perfect slaves made of smiles and waves; one of them being injured would sow confusion, so Rob had to stay hidden below the waves and decks. She took his weight expertly, slowly dragging him back toward Dianarhea. Skuldug and Claudize had already dragged Alast out of the auction house at the advice of the flushess. She knew of an apothecary and surgeon nearby that would handle any patient at her request.

Initially the tilefolk had tried to take Alast to the washroom and their mirror exit, but Alast had spit up blood. His reflection was probably still in the Glass Desert, but they couldn’t risk it stealing even a single drop.

What’s going on? Where is he?” the flushess asked Teal when they were side by side. The tours were coming to a close, the three vessels drifting closer together. Dianarhea’s misery had already doubled, as the bids for the Blameless had surpassed her tile reserves.

He has fallen ill as well,” Teal informed calmly. “I’m dragging him right now. I must leave and follow Skuldug.” She turned to go, but the bergfolk grabbed her shoulder. Her grip was tight and trembling.

Wait! What about the bead?”

I’m sorry, but their lives take priority,” Teal said with a shake of her head. “Either leave with me or try to take it yourself. If you stay, try to catch up with us.” Teal departed, expertly navigating the people around her without risking them stumbling over the bloody pirate.

The flushess was left alone, her hired hoodlums having slipped away one by one, just like the coins from her vaults. What was the point of hiring a band of criminals if they were going to wilt and leak moments before success, like a stud too old to correctly mount a female? She ground her teeth and smacked her stolen paddle against her palm. There was no time to reschedule. The creature’s thugs would come for her soon. Just as the railings of all three ships touched, she vowed to finish their mission. The pirates could make it up to her by running a few traitors through after they took their ultimate bead.

The decks didn’t just touch. The Blameless, the Dockdrifter, and the Chokechain merged. For a few moments everything was walls; they moved over the guests like a cool breeze. Dianarhea took the opportunity to walk past everyone else. She searched for the front of the crowd as it formed from its three parts, for she knew Basaltico and her prize would be there.

Eventually a single chamber formed and expanded. All the bidders were together again. The room was divided in three, with the walls, floor, and ceiling of each section reflecting the aesthetic of one of the ships. A Bouillonr stood at the end of each section, ready to take the final bids. New illusions, false podiums, started to take shape in front of them as well. Each was similarly styled after its vessel. The Chokechain podium was wreathed in hanging, sharp, metal links. The Blameless podium was painted pink and covered in ribbons. Dianarhea did not get a good look at the Dockdrifter’s, for she was hidden inside it.

She had found the front of the group just as the podiums coalesced out of thin air. In a blast of clandestine instinct she never knew she had, Dianarhea bent down and crawled behind the darkening panel that would quickly become the front of the podium. She opened her eyes a moment later, only to realize her hands covered them anyway. She took them off and looked about, careful to keep her long neck scrunched up. She was in an illusory box barely big enough to hold her lanky form. Basaltico boomed over her, extolling the benefits of owning a ship for business dealings and pleasure cruises.

Her panicked breath stilled and an idea came to her. Basaltico was an unscrupulous beast known for jabbing rudely, ignoring social mores, and sometimes even striking others in public. He did this because he knew it could not harm him. His family name gave him a way around the Trickledown economics of Rinlatour. All he had to do was avoid carrying or housing money himself. When he needed some he simply borrowed it from the family stores. In this way he could be as foul as he wanted without suffering any consequences.

Now that evil had risen to the top, corruption bubbling up like the decomposing fat of a sunken animal, Basaltico saw an opportunity to ingratiate himself with his own folk. It was not lost on her, the terrible nepotistic flaw that allowed him to flourish in both forms of the economy, but she needed to focus. His fingers passed through the podium, nearly grazing her hair. He was gesticulating, really selling the seaworthiness of the ships. He would bow at the end. He would sneer and bend and tell all the freshly moneyed scoundrels before him that it was their city now.

Sold, to the fellow in the toil-pipe hat!” Basaltico exclaimed. He had no gavel or anything to bang it on, so he flicked the wild imagination bead. Its sound resonated through the auction house. He made it fade more dramatically by performing a deep bow, aiming it away from the crowd. Its pink petals passed through the top of the podium.

Dianarhea’s fingers shot up and pinched it. Her nails met underneath it, and with her swift pull they cut the threads holding it in place. She brought it down below her chin and stared at it dumbly. What now? She’d already made it clear to everyone that she had no pockets to hide it. Looking at it rattled her already-collapsing nerves, but she couldn’t let it go. The bead was her entire future, and there was only one way to ensure it. Nobody would dare stick their fingers up a flushess’s nose.

As quickly as she’d snatched it, Dianarhea shoved the flower-shaped bead up her left nostril, jamming it in with a long finger until it found the hollow nasal chamber of the bergfolk nose. She nearly blew it back out as it blocked half of her breath, but she managed to both hold it in and suppress a sneeze. There was still the matter of getting out from the podium and the building without being seen, but the situation was already shifting in her favor.

All of the illusions for the day had been carefully crafted by Basaltico much earlier and maintained by the bead’s proximity to him, but now it took its cues from Dianarhea’s latent mind-state. She was a far more honest folk than the Bouillonr, and she had no specific intent to defraud anyone at the auction house. A shadow fell on the illusions as they became more genuine.

The false wood of the Dockdrifter’s deck cracked and warped. A hole appeared in its illusory wall. Ocean spray poured in as if the ship was sinking. The remaining paddles in the audience dropped as obedient sailors changed into disgusting wretches in between steps, their uniforms in disarray. They were clearly intoxicated by an unknown and powerful substance. The illusions grabbed at the womenfolk dresses with their filthy hands.

Dianarhea stuck her head out of the back of the podium and observed some of this. The realization of her luck froze her in place. It was no wonder the Dockdriter had seemed scoured of all personality. Its appearance, as recreated by the wild imagination bead, was a total fabrication. While its layout was correct, everything else about its condition was falsified. It was leaky. The crewfolk assigned to it were inexperienced layabouts. Molding in every corner turned out to just be mold. It listed back and forth dangerously. Basaltico was testing out the limits of his new criminal power, and today’s experiment involved unloading a useless boat.

If you think I’m paying for this you’ve got about ten things coming!” the man in the toil-pipe hat shouted. He clenched his fists and waved them in Basaltico’s direction. Then he threw his paddle on the floor with a clatter. Other voices rose to join his.

What’s the meaning of this?”

Unede tes mauvaitet blaguay Basaltico?

Are these other boats any better?”

Now everyone calm down,” Basaltico shouted. His hand went to his chest. He looked down and pawed at the spot as if his heartbeat had vanished. The Bouillonr dropped to his knees and started feeling around on the floor, below the illusory deck, for his dropped bead. Dianarhea had to move before he searched the podium, so she did as she imagined Captain Rob had done all day, dropping to her back and using her knees to scoot away from the auctioneer.

She could only hope the illusions were high enough to hide her body. They were not, as her knees poked through with each scoot, but by that time the situation had deteriorated so much that none of them noticed her. The combined chamber created by the bead was splitting back into three ships. With no mind working to maintain them, the ships lost their cohesion as well. Masts and sails combined into brown billowing clouds. Barrels floated upward as if they’d lost all gravitation. Whirlpools moved through the water, merging with each other and changing the direction of their rotation.

Not to be outdone, the high society attending crumbled into panic. There was shouting everywhere, and all the Bouillonrs were surrounded by barked queries and fanning hands. The flushess would certainly draw attention if she slithered down the front steps on her back, so when she was close to the door she rose to her feet and brushed off her gown. She brushed it off again. Again. It wasn’t dirt making it look strange, but illusory water flowing over it.

She realized the problem a drip later. The bead in her nose was still producing the illusion of a sea, and now it poured out of her nostrils as powerful twin waterfalls. She glanced to the left as she passed through the doors; there was another woman standing there, finger sandwich halfway in her mouth, staring at the downpour from the flushess’s nose.

As you can see I’ve got quite the runny nose,” Dianarhea said, dabbing at her upper lip with a hand, willing the illusion to slow and cease. “Don’t worry; I’m headed straight to the doctor’s.”

Affluent Afflictions

The doctor the flushess had directed them to was one Chiffaulk Promenadr: an apothecary, practitioner, and surgeon who had faithfully served the cream filling and the sugar on top for rests. She owned a facility very near the Bouillonr auction house, easily recognized by the fuchsia trees and bushes out front and a large wooden sign declaring that her treatments were invitation only.

The facility was never staffed with more than three nurses or assistants, as there were only four examining rooms and one larger operating room. Dr. Promenadr was alone that day, in the midst of a bird-skeleton assembling hobby, when there came a pound on her door. In her rush to answer it she accidentally got some of the adhesive on her fingers; it ended up ripping out some of her silver hair when she pulled her hand away from the knob. Yet that wasn’t as painful as seeing an uninvited tilefolk, bergfolk, and a lightfolk paler than a drenched bedsheet on her doorstep. She tried turning them away, but the tilefolk claimed she was in the party of the Flushess Dianarhea Odettr. The doctor had been told to keep everything looking normal, and normal meant showing Hazelnoose’s daughter the utmost respect. It meant taking in anyone she knew and stitching them with the same diligence she would use on her real patients.

The doctor showed them in and took them straight to the operating room, where she was forced to move her ninety percent complete blue-bottomed bartlebird skeleton aside to make room for Alast. The two other folk laid the boy flat and elevated his head with a small curved pillow. Dr. Promenadr grabbed her stethoscope and a magnification tool before approaching her patient. She was a thin bergfolk with whitish eyes and tall ears, her delicate fingers proving skillful when invading the confined cavities of all three fleshed folk.

She pulled a cloth mask over her face and went to work, ordering Skuldug and Claudize around as makeshift nurses. The doctor snipped off the boy’s shirt with a pair of scissors and opened it like a vest. She listened to his heartbeat and mumbled that it was faint and erratic. She lifted his eyelids and checked them through her handheld lens.

On a hunch she grabbed a small mirror off a nearby tray, usually used to see odd angles in the midst of surgery, and held it close to his face. She leaned down to check it, stood there silently for a moment, and then sighed. Her mask came down.

I’m sorry, but this Leguafoa is as good as dead,” she told Claudize.

What do you mean?” he asked. “He was fine less than a drop ago! What’s ailing him?”

He has been to the Reflecting Path in the last day?”

Yes,” Skuldug admitted, eyes darting about.

And he has no reflection,” Dr. Promenadr noted, lifting the mirror once more to show them. “It was likely this wound here.” She pointed at a small scratch in the seam of Alast’s underarm. It was still bright red with no sign of scabbing, yet blood did not well up or drip. “His solet refleque has taken a drop of his blood and run off. His fluids are now confused as to which world they are supposed to generate in. His blood is draining away from this body and filling up his other half.”

There’s not a single treatment!?”

There is. If you can find his reflection and slay it the fluids will return, but it would have to be done within the next two drops or so. You’re welcome to try yourself, but I’m not an assassin so it’s none of my work.” Chiffaulk stepped away from the table to check whether the glue on her bird held. Rather than argue, Skuldug looked around the operating room for any larger mirrors. There was one, an oval-shaped thing on a telescopic stand, off in the corner. It was also used in complex surgeries, but at the moment it served as a window. Dawn was just on the other side, watching. Skuldug made a waving gesture while the doctor was turned away. The gravefolk responded by sticking her skull out of the glass so she could listen.

The boy went into the path cut,” the tilefolk whispered, throwing the whisper across the room to make sure Dawn could hear. “His ‘flecty has his blood. Find and kill it fast or he’s dead.” The skull on the other side of the room nodded; the shell chains serving as her hair rattled, but by the time the doctor looked over she had disappeared back into the mirror.

We don’t offer cremation here,” the bergfolk said when turning back to Skuldug, “so I suggest you pick up your friend and take him elsewTonk tonk tonk. A knock at the door. “What disaster has befallen Rinlatour on my morning off?” she grumbled as she stalked back to the entrance hall. She returned quickly with two more folk in tow, one of them dragging the other. It was Teal and a nearly-unconscious Rob, who had also earned their entrance by dripping the flushess’s name. “I do have an actual appointment soon; if I can’t diagnose him quickly I’ll have to shuffle you off.”

Another operating table was pulled out and the pirate was put in the same position as Alast, given the same little pillow to hold up his head. The doctor asked what on Porce the flushess had been doing that so endangered her acquaintances.

We already know the issue,” Teal explained. “He’s had a skeletal ailment most of his life; his bones are crystallized and they grow sharp projections. There’s one pressing into his right lung.”

Pressing… understatement,” Rob burbled. Teal grabbed a cloth and wiped the fresh blood from his mouth.

We’ve consulted on this issue before,” she continued, grabbing one of his hands and squeezing. “A previous doctor has told us surgery should be possible. They mentioned an incision under this rib.” She lifted his shirt and pointed it out. The skin was dark purple and splotchy. “They said a file could be used to remove the tip of the spike.”

Crystallized bones?” Dr. Promenadr repeated as if she’d heard nothing else. She pulled the mask back over her face and stepped up to the table, but she didn’t grab any of her instruments. Instead she pulled Rob’s mouth open, wiped the blood from his top teeth, and then scratched at one of the front ones. Tiny strips of paint peeled off and revealed the glittering green underneath. The bergfolk doctor jumped back. “Green crystal bones! I know who that is! It’s Captain Rob!” Her accusatory finger jumped between her patients. “You’re all criminals! Get out of here right now! Sorequa dici!

We’re economists,” Teal said calmly, approaching the doctor with her hands raised. Chiffaulk was not fooled; she backed up until she hit the table holding the bony bartlebird. She grabbed its base and swung it out in front of her, trying to use its beak as a knife. It didn’t do her much good, as Skuldug came in from the side and helped surround her. The bergfolk ripped off her mask and screamed, the sound whistling through her nose.

The three of them rushed her, Teal grabbing an open tin of purple powder from the desk and shoving it in the woman’s face. Her panicked breathing created a cloud of it that caught in her cheek and chin hair. Teal was careful to keep her own nose and mouth pressed into her sleeve so she wouldn’t breathe it in. She’d seen such a powder many times before in Rob’s lab aboard the Greedy Old Mop: a potent sleep drug.

The doctor collapsed into Teal’s arms, but her great height wilted so much that Skuldug had to grab her head and neck. They were maneuvering her behind a room-dividing screen bunched up in the corner when Dianarhea walked in, having taken advantage of the front door being left ajar. Her shocked snort was so powerful that it sent the wild imagination bead flying out of her nose. Its impact shattered the poor bartlebird skeleton, making it the first casualty of the mission.

Half of you are on your backs and you’ve still assaulted someone?” the flushess barked.

She recognized Rob somehow,” Teal explained, moving back to the Captain’s side. She leaned over him. “Did you bed her?” Most folk would’ve taken the question as an insult, but they understood each other better than that. She knew that, lengthy as it was, Rob’s recounted list of romantic rendezvous always needed footnotes. He in turn knew that the question was merely clinical: a way to gather information swiftly so they could move on with the nasty business ahead.

Never met her,” Rob answered truthfully. His body shuddered as he suppressed a cough. Don’t move. Every time we move it rips us more. Tears streaked across his temples. The pirate looked at his former first mate with frightened eyes. It was up to her. She grabbed the scissors and made short work of his shirt, forcing his bare skin to adjust to the cool air. Next she snatched a pinch of the purple powder off the desk with the intent of rubbing it on his upper gum and sending him to sleep, but he grabbed her wrist to stop her. “Need… awake. Might need bonepicking.” She nodded and flicked the powder into the air beneath the operating table.

How did she know?” Dianarhea asked, hands working her hair like someone trying to wash the tassels of a filthy rug.

We don’t know!” Skuldug shouted. “Both our boys are dying here! Alast got his blood touched over in mirror land. Dawn already knows; I think she’s off to slay his ‘flecty.” Rob turned his head and looked at Alast. The young man’s skin was deathly white, his lips cracked and colorless. Skuldug pointed out the small scratch of red near his shoulder. It’s our fault. That’s where our errant claw struck him. He must not have known it broke the skin… and he stepped back into the path right after that.

Skuldug, find me some tools,” Teal ordered. “I need a scalpel and the biggest thickest file you can find. Rags and astringent as well.” The tilefolk scurried around, her shoulders disappearing into various chests and cabinets as she searched. While she did so Teal bound Rob’s limbs in place with the leather straps of the operating table.

What are you doing now?” the flushess asked after checking Dr. Promenadr’s pulse.

Without a surgeon I have to do this myself,” Teal explained, her voice quivering a little. Fear never makes her voice flicker; she thinks we’re doomed. She dunked her hands in a marked bucket of sterilized water and rubbed them with a bar of soapstone. Skuldug met her back at the table with all the requested instruments. Teal picked up the scalpel and placed it in the middle of the purple patch of Rob’s hide. “It doesn’t matter how much of a man you are,” she warned him, “this will be the worst pain you’ve ever felt.” The Captain wanted to ask her for something to bite down on, but that would’ve further degraded his ability to breathe. He would have to grit his teeth and hopefully not shatter them.

Rob nodded. The blade pressed into his skin, drawing blood. She touched the flesh underneath; pain screamed through him. It was enough to make any man’s hands writhe like electrified weggers, but Rob kept them stiff as a board with bonepicking. Her aim is perfect. She’s right over it. For once she’ll be taking the dagger out of our heart.

Tonk tonk tonk! They all froze. The surgeon had said she had another appointment coming up. Dianarhea backed up and nearly tripped on a bartlebird leg bone. Tonk tonk tonk! Whoever they were, they weren’t going to accept that the facility was closed; their intent to enter no matter what was plain. The flushess’s hands flapped uselessly on her wrists like wet rags. Claudize shushed her as Skuldug moved to the door. The tilefolk cast her voice down the hall to the entryway; she’d heard Chiffaulk speak enough to mimic her effectively.

Eia, questela?” she asked.

Ile sagit Hazelnoose,” a voice from the other side declared. Dianarhea threw her hands over her mouth. Something would’ve exploded out of her if she didn’t, though none of them knew if it would be fear, rage, or another bath bead ejected from the nostril. Her father was dead, killed and infested by the prosite. That creature spoke now, using its host’s name to help maintain a semblance of order as it re-forged Rinlatour. Only Dianarhea had seen the monster’s current form, but they could tell from its raspy watery voice that it wouldn’t look like any normal bergfolk.

We can’t let it in!” the flushess hissed. “This is it! We’ll be found out. We need to flee out the back.”

We can’t move Rob again,” Teal whispered. “I have to finish this and I have to do it now. Take a deep breath… and then take the doctor’s clothes.” Dianarhea’s eyes widened so much that her lashes looked ready to loose like arrows. Even if she could make it through this, her normally civil mind needed a few moments to adjust to the possibility. Skuldug covered for her the best she could.

Just a moment! I’m powdering my big nose,” the tilefolk lied, having switched to Wide Porcian when she realized she had no idea what language the creature would prefer, as she helped strip the white coat from Chiffaulk and drape it over Dianarhea’s shoulders. They transferred the mask as well. With her mouth covered she was a decent likeness for the doctor, and Skuldug’s false voice could complete the illusion.

I’m here the same time as last rinse doctor,” the prosite said. “You should be ready. I know it’s not a fun experience, but I’m the one these boils are growing on.”

It’s growing boils on my father’s body,” Dianarhea fumed. “We should kill it. I’ve never wanted anything more!”

It may come to that,” Teal said, “but get it in here first and try to get through it while I saw a piece off Rob.”

The right piece,” Rob groaned, “not the one… you been after.” Even with the light fading he managed a smile and a wet cough of a laugh. Teal didn’t smile back, but she ran her free hand down his beard, on the opposite side of the scarring kiss Vyra had given him. She set down the scalpel so she could grab the room dividing screen and pull it across the corner, thus hiding the two tables and all six folk from view. Claudize had the foresight to take the mirror behind the screen as well, in case they needed a last resort escape route.

I’m watching,” Skuldug said with one eye peeked out from its corner. “I’ll do all the talking.” Dianarhea nodded, moderating her breathing so the fiend wouldn’t hear her gasping and speaking at the same time. She cleared the expression from her eyes: the one that suggested she was about to open the door and let in an avalanche of thrice-rotted dock garbage. Then the flushess rushed down the hallway, grabbed the knob, and pulled the door open.

Two bergfolk guards, wearing elite royal uniforms complete with heavy sashes, muscled their way into the narrow hall. They each carried a bucket hammer, with sabers and daggers sheathed on their belts. They marched past the flushess and into the operating room, where they posted themselves in opposite corners.

After them came the source of all their troubles, and of Rob’s rise from not just the drain, but the bowels of Porce. The monstrosity that entered could not be called bergfolk even by someone with the world’s blurriest vision. Its height was somewhat diminished by terrible posture, the slouch necessitated by all the extra weight it carried around its head.

Its outfit belonged to her father; she recognized it as the one he’d worn to her graduation from the Vengramr Sugartop University. The school’s colors were black and gold, so he had worn them in support. The creature had fouled both those memories and the cloth itself. While the billowing sleeves and leggings were clean, the collar was spattered with nasty stains like flying flecks of grease from an attempt to cook a bird-dropping omelet.

Hazelnoose’s hands had lost all their hair. The veins on top stood out like rivers on a map. The fingernails were brittle, chipped, and ridged like a washboard. Still, the hands at least resembled an ordinary corpse. The head was not so polite.

Rob had known one other individual infected by a prosite. The cowardly organism had hidden most outward signs of its attempt, choosing to stay largely dormant in her lungs, limiting the symptoms to blackened gums, darkened teeth, and an acidic vapor from the mouth. Fixadilaran Bocculum had no use for such subtlety. It had taken complete control of the royal flush’s body, starting with the suffocation of its resident mind.

Hazelnoose’s head was now completely covered in a drooping blob: a sack of fermented bean paste turned inside out. The greasy yellow-brown swell bubbled and popped constantly with little sounds like the fall of sewage as rain. It was the source of the myriad stains across her father’s collar. There were only two clear features across the ever-collapsing swollen dome of its head. One was a single small eye positioned in the general neighborhood of where a bergfolk should have one of their eyes.

A prosite eye was large and bore pupils in all directions; it doubled as the creature’s vulnerable core. Fixadil must have had it hidden somewhere in that putrid dome of mingling semi-solid tissues. The one visible eye was one of Hazelnoose’s, but in order for it to be visible it was likely several bubbles out of its socket, either tethered by veins or removed from the skull entirely.

The other feature on Fixadil’s butchered face was a hanging flap of bubbling skin that cut diagonally across the head, from one corner of the eye down to the opposite side of the collarbone. This flap opened along the bottom whenever the prosite spoke, flashing row after row, practically a carpet, of sharp yellow teeth. The nauseating wiggling and flapping of this mouth was like watching a fruit rotted from the inside rupture and spill its putrid juices out the bottom.

It’s about time,” the creature said as it stepped past her and joined its guards in the operating room. “Do I need to remind you what’s at stake for you, seeing as you can’t even remember the time of our routine appointment?”

Couldn’t hurt,” Skuldug mimicked. Dianarhea paired a shrug with the statement. A lump of flesh above the infected eye twitched, perhaps displaying surprise. Fixadil stopped in the middle of the room, arms folded behind its back, and stared at the flushess expectantly. The flushess remembered she was a doctor, so she grabbed the third operating table from the back wall and brought it to the center. Skuldug urged the creature to have a seat.

Just keep it in your head this time,” Fixadil grumbled. It laid flat on its back, fluffing its own little pillow before locking its stolen fingers over its chest. “Keep issuing your report that the royal flush is in good health and you will get to keep your doors open.” Fixadil flicked its head, turning its mouth flap upside down and revealing the cause of its visit.

It seemed Fixadil wasn’t as skillful at controlling the bergfolk body as it would’ve liked. Even dead, even controlled, part of it still fought, as evidenced by the pus-filled nodules populating the underside of the flap like clutches of hunder bug eggs. A wave of their smell hit Dianarhea, making her gag. Even the guards in the corner held their noses.

They seem especially bad this time,” Skuldug said. She could smell it as well; she didn’t even have to fake the sound of vomit tickling the back of her throat. The poor tilefolk couldn’t cover her nose, as both her hands held a rag over Rob’s mouth. Teal continued her expedition into his flesh; she hadn’t reached the problematic jewel yet. Rob’s silence was a testament to his willpower, but the agony was obvious in the flood of tears filling his ears.

Imagine how I feel,” Fixadil complained, poking at one of the blemishes and wincing. “Here I am trying to look respectable and this skin won’t behave itself. I never would’ve thought profection would be such a constant battle. Luckily I can pay professionals like you to make me nice and smooth when I need it.” It took a deep breath full of snot, but it seemed to refresh it just fine. “Let’s get to it.”

Yes of course,” Skuldug made Dianarhea say. “I’ll just grab my lancet.” The flush’s daughter looked around at the tilefolk’s encouragement. There was a likely candidate next to one of the flung bird bones on a nearby table: a paper-thin blade the size of a pencil. She picked it up and headed back over to her father’s desecrated corpse. She was about to jab one of the quivering pus lumps when its hand grabbed her wrist, forcing her to suppress memories yet again, lest they be perverted and corrupted by the pathogenic beast. Hazelnoose used to grab her like that whenever she tried to take an undeserved croissant-cookie from the glass jar on the kitchen table.

Apparently you’ve forgotten this as well,” Fixadil said menacingly. It squeezed her wrist until she dropped the blade, which clattered to the floor. With her father’s other hand it reached into its pocket and pulled out a similar blade with a cork stuck on the end of it. The prosite released her and then uncorked the blade, handing it to her. “All of you bergfolk think I’m so stupid. There are at least ten invisible poisons you could’ve dried onto that blade and stuck right in me. You use only the equipment and substances I personally give you.”

You don’t need to be paranoid,” Skuldug said flippantly. “Have you considered that I’m the stupid one?

I’ve considered all possibilities,” the prosite insisted. “I’ve ripped every page from the Rinlatour book and laid them out before me. Yes, you are very low on the coup attempt list, but not low enough to disregard. Everyone who stands below me is a threat, which is why their pockets will always be emptier than mine. Look at those two.” Fixadil pointed at the guards. They did not acknowledge that they had become the center of the conversation.

What about them?”

Individually they are greater threats than you, as they guard me at all times and have experience with violence of the less clinical sort. Knowing this, I have worked out a schedule to minimize the likelihood of treachery. My guards are rotated every few drops, and more brilliantly, they are always paired with a personal rival they strongly dislike.” The guards glanced at each other. One’s lip twitched while the other crossed his arms tighter. “If one of them made an attempt on my life the other would see great opportunity to attack and be greatly rewarded for it.”

I don’t know if that’s thinking of everything,” Skuldug said through Dianarhea’s mask, “but that is thinking of a lot.”

Yes,” Fixadil agreed. It dug around in its pocket again and pulled out a long, thin, cylindrical bottle full of green liquid. “I’ll be administering my own sedative from now on as well. Once I’m asleep I expect you to drain and clean these growths as quickly as you can. I have an appointment with a rug man today. I’m having all those dusty rugs in the palace replaced.”

Those rugs are hundreds of rests old!” Dianarhea blurted, palms smacking the side of the table. Fixadil and the guards stared, unsure if they’d actually heard a change in the doctor’s voice. “Ahumm! Excuse me,” Skuldug resumed. “I had an ogtot jumping around in my throat. A very foolish ogtot. Now where were we?”

The prosite blinked its stolen jellied eye and then leaned back. It peeled back the top half of its skin-flap mouth and poured the syrupy green liquid over its teeth, rubbing it into the gums between with a fingertip. It only took forty drips for the monster to lose consciousness. After that it was up to the flushess to flip the flap over and take care of its many reeking pustules.

On the other side of the screen, with all the silence of a midnight throat-cutting, Teal worked over Rob’s incision. She had the opening wide enough to stick four fingers inside, and that was what she had to do. Rob’s throat quivered, the ball in it bucking, each time the digits squeezed inside. He found it impossible to think; all he could do was shore up his will by diving deeper into his mind, finding places of slow thought that didn’t need as much air to function.

Eventually she found the tip of the spike as it pricked her finger and mingled a drop of blood with Rob’s. She pinched the end of it so she wouldn’t lose it, and with the other hand reached for the metal file. The implement was perfectly clean and shiny, but its size was horrifying, large enough to act as a cheese-serving tray.

With one rapid motion she pushed the tip of the file in and ran it across the end of the spike. Another moan died in Rob’s throat. The first one that didn’t would have the guards on the other side of the room smashing through the screen with their hammers. The Captain felt all of it, from the individual pokes of the file, the spike, and Teal’s fingers, to the grains of emerald grit falling and sinking into his soft tissues. He wanted nothing more than for Teal to hurry, but she could not. If she moved the file rapidly it would produce too much noise. As it stood her pushes and pulls were spaced by increments of a few drips.

What Teal wanted was a little more room to operate; her wish was granted. Having silently observed much of this, Dawn knew to enter cautiously. She stepped out of the mirror with one hand holding her beaded hair under her chin so it wouldn’t rattle. She signaled that she was going to take Alast. His wound was still open, but it mattered not. If his reflection had one drop of blood it had them all.

Teal simply nodded and went back to work. She guessed that, should Alast perish, Pearlen wanted him by her side at that moment. Skuldug pushed the boy’s table as close to the mirror as possible before dropping to her knees and sticking her eye under the screen. Dawn used bonepicking to slide her arm under his tailbone and roll him over her shoulder. She was gone as quickly as she’d arrived, taking Claudize with her to leave the other two more room.

On the other side of the screen, Dianarhea’s breath hissed through her teeth. She didn’t dare breathe through her nose while hovering over the moldy garden of membranes and humors. The stench was so overwhelming that she felt it on the surface of her eyes, as if they were being pickled in her head.

Piercing the boils was simple enough, though it required a nauseating amount of pressure, like stabbing a leather saddle, but finding a place to put all the pooling fluid was another matter entirely. There were a few metal trays lying around, but the milky yellow fluid of just three pustules was enough to fill all of them. After that she had to turn to sponges. There was a bucket of them stored on a tray under the table. The irregularly-shaped objects came in numerous colors, but after a few dips into the bodily fluids of Fixadilaran Bocculum they were all the same shade.

Abuff fa offul,” Fixadil mumbled. Dianarhea thought perhaps the monster had woken up, so she set her blade aside, wiped as much of the fluid away with a rag as she could, and flipped the mouth flap back to its proper orientation. “Above the awful…” it repeated.

What? What’s being said?” Skuldug asked the guards.

No idea,” one of them replied. “It talks in its sleep sometimes; we’ve been told to ignore it. You’d best do the same.” Dianarhea nodded. She slid one sleeved forearm under the flap and went back to stabbing the whitish domes that were left.

Above the awful, where you were reborn,” Fixadil continued to mutter. “Its other half will be there. Waiting. Waiting to help…” When Teal dragged the file across his bone it was all Rob could hear. Luckily they were in a lull between sawing motions when Fixadil spoke those words. What did that thing just say? It just… Raaaaahh! Don’t make a sound. Think through the pain. Listen. This is for us. The pirate strained to hear, but it seemed Fixadil had nothing more to say in its slumber. Above the awful, where you were reborn. Its other half will be there. Waiting. Raaahhh! Waiting to… help…

The file slid out and Teal’s hand dove in for a final examination. She rubbed the tip of the spike with a finger to make sure it had been blunted sufficiently. It was still very much there, and there was no telling if it would sharpen itself again over time, but it was a good enough fix for the moment. Skuldug handed her a disinfecting agent in a glass bottle. Teal placed the top against a rag before moving the rag to Rob’s wound. That was the worst pain of all, like a waterfall of acid under his skin, and it once again tore the Captain away from consciousness.

Dianarhea, lost in a fugue of rage, diligently finished lancing Fixadil’s many blemishes. When she was done the puddled flesh under the mouth flap hardly looked any better. There was no more obvious pus, but it was a barren wasteland of punctures oozing a rapidly-crusting amber fluid. The flushess took a step back, breathed away from her father’s body, and went to wash her hands.

Finitet?” one of the guards asked. He dug another tiny bottle out of his pocket.

Eia, qua finitet.” Skuldug answered in Merdidu. The guard took the cork from the bottle and went to administer a drop to Fixadil’s mouth flap. The other guard grabbed his forearm for a moment and twisted it so he could see the label on the bottle. When he was satisfied it wasn’t poison he let his peer put one drop to the yellow sickle teeth of the prosite. Not long after the creature stirred from its slumber, sitting up. It snapped its stolen fingers until one of the guards handed over a handkerchief for it to rub the underside of its mouth flap with.

Not your usual delicate touch Dr. Promenadr,” Fixadil noted, a tiny growl in its voice. “I feel like a pincushion.” Dianarhea gripped the edges of the sink, her nails scratching the metal. It might be worth losing all their lives to just kill it then and there.

They get bigger and meaner every time,” Skuldug quipped. Her tone forced Dianarhea’s body language to be more casual. “I need to put the fear in some of them so they won’t grow back.”

I wish I knew if there was any validity to that,” the prosite sighed. It got to its feet and straightened its clothes. “Our next appointment will be delayed by a day, for the potluck of course.”

The potluck?” Skuldug asked.

Do tell me you’ll be in attendance doctor!” Fixadil insisted, seeming genuinely offended. “It will be the first of my fittest lotteries. The golden trickle bead will storm and tiles will fall torrentially all over Rinlatour. Whatever is grabbed, stolen, and kept that day will be theirs to keep. The fittest will become the richest, as it always should have been. You could make yourself a wealthy woman if you’d only show up and try.”

My trade is sufficient,” Skuldug said simply.

It’s your life doctor,” Fixadil said with a startling wicked approximation of a smile, “I just live in it. Here is your fee. I’ll see you next rinse.” The prosite snapped its fingers as it left the room, its two guards following close behind. Tile coins fell around the room, materializing from thin air. Teal threw her body over Rob’s to keep him from being pelted. After the door closed Skuldug pulled back the screen, scavenged wild imagination bead in hand, and breathed such a sigh of relief with her big tilefolk lungs that her eyes nearly popped out of her collarbone.

Dianarhea picked up one of the coins after it splashed into a tray of drained pus. Her mind still reeled from the gross tide she’d just endured, so her body didn’t have the energy to recoil as some of it dripped down her finger. There was something odd about that coin. She spied several brown stains along the ridges. Dried blood. Many of them had similar markings. One even bore a fresh streak of crimson down the front. The wealth of her city was becoming literal blood money. Everywhere robbers stabbed and stole, keeping their prizes with the utmost confidence. The violence made its way higher and higher. She doubted that even the rundown house had enough water to wash the blood away.

Continued in Part Five

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