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She wasn't wearing much: just a short, lace-trimmed leather skirt and bustier. The outfit exposed a lot of nicely tanned leg and midriff, and called even more attention to what little it covered. She was taller than the other girls serving drinks in Syb's Tavern, as tall as most of the men, and her serving tray often grazed the low ceiling as she wiped off tables, handed out beers and collected empty glasses. Long, dark brown hair swirled around her head as she slipped gracefully through the dense Saturday-night crowd, more dancing than walking.
At the other end of the pub, Scrornuck Saughblade sipped a pint of Heavy Duty Night Time Porter and watched the wench glide into the back room with a tray full of empties. Aside from the beer, she was the only bright spot in this otherwise dismal joint. Syb's was a place where the ceiling creaked ominously every time somebody in the upstairs brothel shifted position, a place where the lights were dim, not to create a romantic mood, but because the gas lamps had never been cleaned. He found the serving wench far more entertaining than the third-rate singer on the tiny stage, and when she stepped back into the bar carrying a tray of fresh drinks, he felt an almost irresistible urge to meet her.
So, it appeared, did the gentleman sitting at a table near the stage, a man far too well-dressed to be drinking in a dive like Syb's. He grabbed her wrist, nearly spilling her drink tray as he pulled her close and whispered something in her ear. It wasn't the right thing, for she jerked her arm away and smacked him, sending hisdrink flying and almost knocking him from his chair. For a moment, he rubbed his bright-red cheek as the server angrily pointed to the door. Then he sat up straight and snapped his fingers. Immediately, seven big thugs jumped up from an adjoining table and lunged for the serving girl. A large man in a ruffled Elizabethan shirt and tights threw a punch that sailed harmlessly through the space where she had been. She tripped him with a casual flick of her foot, sending him face-first into a chair. Another came at her from behind, only to have a sudden backward jab of her elbow knock out several of his teeth.
Scrornuck jumped to his feet, clenching and unclenching his fists, surprised and angry that not a soul in the place was moving to the girl's defense. He glanced briefly at his traveling companion Jape Phelps, who looked up from his longneck lager and nodded slightly. Taking the nod as a sign of approval, Scrornuck headed for the fight, elbowing his way between tables and knocking over more than a few drinks. He watched the serving girl with increasing admiration as she ducked and swerved, always staying just one move ahead of her opponents.
Shoving one last table and two drunken spectators aside, Scrornuck waded into the fray. One of the thugs pointed at his kilt and sneered, "Hey, cutie, what's under the dress?" The others joined in with a chorus of wolf-whistles.
"Your girlfriend's lipstick," Scrornuck replied, decking the man with a single punch. Then he spun around and bloodied another's nose with a hard backhand.
Punches and kicks flew, along with beer mugs and random pieces of furniture, and in short order he found himself standing back-to-back with the girl, facing the last four of the gang. "I don't remember asking for help," she called, easily ducking a punch and sending her opponent reeling with a knee to the belly.
"Where I come from, you wouldn't have to." Scrornuck flattened another thug with a hard right to the jaw. "Besides, I wanted to meet you."
"You like to pick up women in bar fights?" She dodged to her left and shoulder-blocked another assailant into a post with enough force to shake dust off the ceiling beams and set the lanterns swinging.
"Sometimes." Scrornuck pitched the final member of the gang over the top of the bar. As the crowd roared its approval, he dusted himself off and held out his hand. "Name's Scrornuck. Scrornuck Saugh--"
The girl ducked. An instant later a small dagger flew through the space where she'd been and bourten by an inch as it pulled back from Pretty Boy's throat. "I think you and your playmates should be going," he said, tipping his head slightly in the direction of the exit. Pretty Boy nodded nervously, and slowly stooped to retrieve his dagger. Scrornuck's hands spun, and the sparkling-glass blade jumped downward, breaking the dagger in half with a sudden clink-thunk. He smiled and said, "You won't be needing that."
As Pretty Boy hustled his still-groggy gang out the door, Scrornuck slipped what now looked like a short hunting-knife into a sheath on his broad leather belt. He again held out his hand to the serving girl. "As I was saying, my name's Scrornuck, Scrornuck Saughblade."
"Scrornuck? Saughblade? Who needs more than one name?" With a shrug, she took his hand and gave him a firm handshake. "Pleased to meet you, Scrornuck Saughblade. I'm called Nalia. It's the only name I have."
"Pleased to meet you, Nalia." He smiled his best smile, a sort of lopsided grin. "Care for a frosty one?"
"The boss said I could get fired for accepting drinks from the customers," she said, glancing around at the wrecked furniture. Then, with a short sigh, she pulled the wipe rag from her belt and threw it in the general direction of the bar. "What the hell, this job's history. You buying?"
"I don't have a penny to my name," Scrornuck said as he led Nalia to his table. "But my friend does."
"My name's Phelps, James Peter Phelps," Scrornuck's companion said, standing and offering his hand to their new acquaintance. "People call me Jape."
"Three names? And then you go by a fourth?" Nalia laughed out loud as she shook his hand and took a seat. "Seems to me one name is enough for anybody."
"The history of my family is in these names," Jape said. "James, my grandfather; Peter, the rich uncle who left us comfortably well off; Phelps, the family name; and 'Jape' from the initials J.P., because I never really liked James or Peter."
"So it's like the name of this joint," she said, pointing to the sign behind the bar. "Stuff Your Belly For A Small Copper Coin, or 'SYBFASCC,' or just 'Syb's' for short."
He nodded. "So you see, my name makes perfect sense."
She accepted a glass of Middleweight Pale Ale from a passing server and laughed. "Actually, I think you're nuts. But as long as you're buying the beer, I'll pretend it makes sense!"
"It makes sense where I come from. Of course, we're not from around here."
"No shit, Sherlock!" she said. Jape arched one eyebrow, as if asking where that remark came from. Nalia, meanwhile, turned and pointed at Scrornuck. "You're just the tallest guy I've ever seen. What are you, six-four?"
"Uh-huh." She gave him a detailed inspection, from the bandanna holding his long red hair out of his eyes to the elaborate boots beneath his kilt. "And look how you're dressed," she continued. "No, you're not from around here." She then took a closer look at Jape and chuckled. "Of course, you almost make up for it. You look about as dull as dishwater."
Jape glanced at himself, as if noticing his outfit of tan pants, gray shirt and short gray cape for the first time. Then he shrugged a bland shrug and took a sip from his longneck lager. "I like looking dull," he said cheerfully. "Almost nobody notices me."
Scrornuck pointed to several uniformed men moving toward their table. "Almost doesn't count."
"Crap." Nalia clenched her fists. "By Spafu's wing, they're not going to haul me off to jail without a fight."
Scrornuck took an unhurried swallow. "Seems like a lot of them for a bar fight. Who did we beat up, anyway?"
"His name is Leondo," Nalia said with a sigh. "Says he's a high-ranking Mayoral Guard."
"Big shot cop? So that's why everybody sat on their thumbs."
"They don't want to spend the night in jail. His pals are off-duty Guards, and they're not happy about getting beat up." She gulped her beer, trying to get it finished before the trouble resumed. "You should have stayed out of this."
Scrornuck slid his chair back. "We should have kicked their asses harder. They need a lesson."
Jape placed a hand on Scrornuck's shoulder. "Patience, Mister Saughblade." He turned to Nalia. "What did you do to deserve his attention?"
She shrugged. "He made a pass at me last night. Probably mistook me for one of the hookers that hang around here. I threw him out and told him not to come back." She took another big gulp, leaving her glass about a third full. "The jerk just had to come back, didn't he?" She polished off her beer in two big swallows. "Two weeks I've had this job, just got to know who the big tippers are, and now..." She set her glass down. "Crap. Son-of-a-bitch throws a knife, could have hurt somebody, and I'm the one who'll be going to jail."
Rather casually, Jape got to his feet. "I, for one, don't feel like spending the night behind bars. I believe it's time we made an exit."
Nalia shot a wicked glare at the approaching Guards as she stood. Scrornuck's hand moved toward the sheath hanging from his belt, but Jape's soft voice restrained him. "I think a non-violent approach is in order." He took a small disc from a pocket of his nondescript gray cape and pitched it toward the Guards. Midway through its flight the disc burst, throwing silver coins in all directions. Now, a shower of silver coins is not an everyday occurrence in a place that offers to stuff your belly for a copper, and in seconds the Guards found themselves in the middle of a small mob as people scrambled for the money. Even Nalia took a step toward the coins until Scrornuck gently but firmly pointed her in the other direction.
The three reached the back of the barroom. There was no door. "I think we're in trouble," Nalia said.
Jape was unconcerned. "I told you we'd have to make an exit. Mister Saughblade, if you please..."
"My pleasure." Scrornuck pulled his sword, or more precisely, a two-handed grip attached to a few inches of gray iron, from the sheath on his belt. He squeezed it just so, savoring the warmth and slight vibration that came through the red leather. A four-foot blade appeared from nowhere, its center clear as glass and its serrated edges shimmering a pale gold. He shifted his fingers ever so slightly, and the sword's edges blurred as if in motion. Taking a deep breath, he planted his feet and touched the blade to the wall. In a shower of sparks, he made three thin, straight cuts through the wood and masonry. He put the weapon away and gave the wall a hard shove with his foot, opening a neat, rectangular exit. "Shall we?" he said, gallantly taking Nalia's hand.
They trotted for several minutes through the dark, crowded streets, until they were sure they'd lost the Guards, and then settled in at another bar.
"Nothing like a brisk jog to work up a thirst," Jape said, lifting his longneck.
"A brisk jog and a little home improvement," Scrornuck said, slouching in his chair and taking a long drink from his pint. "The place needed a back door."
"I'm sure they'll thank you for it someday."
"Hope so. Maybe they'll thank you for that big tip, too."
"Perhaps." Jape turned to Nalia. "Penny for your thoughts?"
"I'm wondering why your friend's wearing a dress."
"It's called a kilt," Scrornuck said firmly.
"It's named after what Mister Saughblade did to the last man who called it a dress," Jape added, drumming a little rim-shot on the table.
"That's not true," Scrornuck protested. "I don't think I even broke his jaw."
Nalia inspected Scrornuck as if trying to decide whether to believe Jape's remark. "Uh-huh," she said at last. "Kilt, dress, whatever. Why?"
Scrornuck shrugged. "Where I come from, it's what men wear."
"What do your women wear, then?"
"Skirts, of course."
Nalia's eyes skipped back and forth between his knee-length, deeply-pleated, brown-spatters-on-scarlet kilt and her short, tight, lace-trimmed leather skirt. "I don't see any--"
Jape chuckled. "Only they know the difference."
"I guess." She polished off her bottle of Saturday Night Lightweight Ale. "Well, whatever that thing's called, I was thinking about how your friend here has a pretty nice butt under it."
"Huh?" Scrornuck jerked upright, nearly spitting beer foam in Jape's face.
"It was hard to miss." She held her empty bottle like a sword grip and stood with her feet almost a yard apart. "I mean, you stood like this, and then you shook it--" She swung her hips back and forth. "What was I supposed to do, close my eyes?"
Scrornuck's face was almost as red as his hair as he struggled to decide whether to take her remark as an insult, a compliment, or a proposition.
After another round and some small talk, Jape handed Nalia a small slip of paper. "We might be able to help you find a job better than waiting on tables and fending off randy guardians of the populace. This is the location of a restaurant. The officer at the city gate said it's rather nice. We have a business proposition we'd like to discuss with you in the morning, say about eight?"
"What kind of business?"
"Nothing illegal, and nothing you'd be ashamed to tell your mother about. I'd say more, but I think we all need some sleep. Will you be there?"
Nalia studied the paper. "Guest Quarter?" Her fingers played with a little bronze medallion hanging from her neck. "Will they let me in?"
Jape handed her two large silver coins. "If there are any problems, give the guard one of these."
"A silver piece as a tip?" she mumbled. "And the other one?"
"An advance. There'll be more if we can work together."
"We'll work together." She stared greedily at the coins. "Anything I should bring?"
"Comfortable walking shoes, and a change of clothes."
They headed into the street, Nalia turning left and Jape and Scrornuck right. "See you tomorrow," she said, jingling the silver pieces in her hand.
Jape nodded politely. "See you in the morning."
As they walked away, Scrornuck called over his shoulder, "By the way--I think yours is pretty nice, too!" He heard Nalia's laughter as she turned the corner and disappeared.
After he and Jape had walked a few blocks through the narrow, winding streets, Scrornuck's curiosity got the best of him. "No shit, Sherlock?" he asked.
"Hmm?" Jape said.
"I saw you jump when she said that."
"I didn't expect to hear it," Jape said. "It's a bit out of character for a medieval serving wench, wouldn't you say?"
Jape stroked his chin thoughtfully. "I suspect some early Cast members picked it up from construction workers," he mused. "Since UniFlag pulled the plug on this project before opening day, they never got around to scrubbing the anachronisms."
"Uh-huh." Scrornuck didn't fully understand Jape's explanation, but he grasped enough to see that Nalia's comment was no big deal. In fact, he rather liked the phrase. No shit, Sherlock, he thought. That just might be a keeper.
They turned a corner. "So what's with the job offer?"
"Did you notice anything about the way she handled those guys?"
Scrornuck replayed the brawl in his mind. "Yeah--she seemed to know what they were going to do..."
"--before they did it. The instruments say she's got the talent."
"Cool." They walked a bit further before another question entered Scrornuck's mind. "Think she's got a guy?"
Jape stopped. "Mister Saughblade, do I detect romantic interest?"
"Well, watch yourself." Jape resumed his stroll. "I know you--curious becomes concerned, concerned becomes worried, next thing you know you've got a passionate crush going."
Scrornuck shook his head. "She's the kind that breaks hearts, starts fights, gets people knifed..."
"Just your type," Jape said with a grin. "Remember what I've told you about getting involved with locals. We'll be out of here soon enough."
Scrornuck sighed. "I remember. But still, do you think she's got a guy?"
"We'll find out in the morning--assuming she shows up, of course."
"Yeah. I'm kind of surprised you let her get away."
"Things aren't urgent yet." Jape held up his left hand. His fingers were encrusted with silver and gold rings, each bearing jewels which seemed to sparkle or glow with their own light. The most prominent ring sported a deep, reassuring green jewel.
Scrornuck nodded. "Be nice if it stays that way. We could use a little vacation." As he spoke, his eye was drawn to a flare of yellow light in the sky, and he looked up to see a dragon silhouetted against the crescent moon. It blew another ball of yellow flame, slowly turned to the south and glided into the distance. "Just what we need," he muttered, instinctively resting a hand on his sword-grip.
"Pretty, aren't they?" With a slight smile, Jape watched the dragon disappear. "UniFlag really did pull out all the stops on this project."
They turned the corner under a sign that read STAGING STREET: TO TEMPLE SQUARE AND GUEST QUARTER, strolled a single block down the broad avenue and found themselves in the city center, an open plaza two full blocks on a side. A line of thirty-foot-tall concrete towers, which marched across the Cast Quarter and continued along the road to the west of the city, came to its end at the exact center of the Square. Workers had propped wooden ladders against the last two towers and were busily rigging a banner between them.
"Hey, look at that--the corporate mascot!" Jape pointed to the shops lining the east and west sides of the Square, their windows filled with merchandise bearing the image of Spafu the Friendly Dragon. "Remember the first time I showed you one of his cartoons?"
Scrornuck grinned--at the time, animated cartoons had been a whole new experience. "Yeah, I laughed my ass off. I still do." He stopped to examine a knife that was prominently displayed in a shop's window. "Woo-hoo, that one's a beauty!" The knife sported a grip of fine black leather and silver, and a highly-polished, ten-inch blade engraved with detailed images of Spafu.
"Looking for a souvenir already?" Jape asked.
Scrornuck nodded. This knife would make a fine addition to his collection of weaponry. "We'll have to come back when the shops are open."
"I suppose you're expecting me to pay for this?"
"You've got the expense account."
Jape sighed and moved on to the next store window, one filled with shirts and hats. "Would you look at that," he said in a whisper that turned to a half-whistle.
"What?" Scrornuck saw nothing remarkable about the merchandise.
"It's all new!" Jape said. "According to the records, this project was shut down a hundred years ago." He quickly looked in several more shop windows. "Furniture, shoes, clothing, every bit of it brand new! Where are they getting it?"
"Same place they get the toilet paper, I suppose." Scrornuck had already discovered that Taupeaquaah was well-stocked with this most consumable of consumer goods.
"Support systems are still operating?" Jape's voice carried a tone of respect bordering on awe. "UniFlag really did build this place to last."
Scrornuck turned to look at the Square's south side, dominated by Taupeaquaah's cartoonishly Gothic City Hall. He stroked his beard as he stared at the building's tall, white spire. Something seemed wrong about it.
"Forced perspective," Jape said, "The upper floors are only a few feet high, so the building looks taller than it really is. Nothing in this place is quite what it seems." There was a touch of wonder in his voice as he gazed into the clear, star-filled sky. "Still, the weather's nice, food's great, and there's all this room. I could get to like living here."
"Yeah, I could get used to a place like this." Scrornuck turned slowly to take in the whole of the Square--and stopped abruptly as he faced the north side. "Bloody hell..."
A white marble staircase nearly twenty feet high stretched from one side of the Square to the other, rising on either side of a semicircular porch to form the base of a grand, classical-Greek building. White colonnades thirty feet high made up the walls and front of the structure, and from its gently peaked roof a great stone dragon sprang out over the Square as if frozen in mid-leap. The dragon's outstretched wings sheltered the steps, and its leering head hung some forty feet above the stones of the Square. Thin wisps of smoke drifted from its nostrils.
As Scrornuck and Jape watched, the workers unfurled their banner:
"Would you look at that!" Jape whispered.
Scrornuck stared in disbelief. "Offerings?"
Jape shrugged. "Spafu was UniFlag's mascot. I'd expect the Cast to show some respect for the corporate symbols."
"Respect, nothing! Spafu belongs in a cartoon, not a bloody temple!"
"Keep it down," Jape said, seeing some heads turning their way. "We don't want to start a holy war."
"Because we have work to do, Mister Saughblade." Jape's voice carried a crisp tone of authority.
"Yeah, right," Scrornuck grunted angrily as he turned his back to the Temple. In an uneasy silence they crossed the Square, paid a small bribe to the guard and walked a few more blocks down the broad avenues of the Guest Quarter to find an inn where they could grab a few hours' sleep.
"Table for three," Jape said cheerfully, as he and Scrornuck arrived at the rooftop pub to meet Nalia. The headwaiter snapped his fingers, and the gaily attired staff hurried off to prepare a table.
Scrornuck leaned against the stone railing, taking in the view. A few puffy clouds punctuated the blue midsummer sky, and the morning sun lit the Guest Quarter and Temple Square in glorious gold. Beyond the Square, the smaller buildings and twisting streets of the Cast Quarter extended to the great white wall marking the edge of the city, and beyond the wall a yellow road wound across gently rolling plains to the horizon. In the distance, a few dragons rode the morning updrafts.
Only one thing was missing. "Wonder where they put the rides," he said.
"Roller coasters, whirl-a-hurl, you know."
"Beats me." Jape pointed to the line of concrete towers alongside the yellow road. "Some other town, probably. I suspect those towers were supposed to support a monorail."
"We'll have to go looking when we get done. You know how I love roller coasters."
"Don't get your hopes too high. The rides might not have been installed yet--and even if they were, it's not likely they'd still be working."
"I'll make 'em work," Scrornuck said confidently.
With a discreet cough, the headwaiter interrupted their conversation. "Your table is ready." He paused for a second, his eyes darting between Scrornuck's kilt and beard, before adding, "Sirs. This way, please." As he led the procession to the table, Scrornuck could feel the headwaiter's eyes inspecting him, moving from the knee-high, fringed leather boots to the short, sleeveless jacket with its red-fabric armor and shoulder guards, to the waist-length mop of red hair, always returning to the red-with-brown-splotches kilt.
They arrived at the table, and as Scrornuck and Jape took their seats, the headwaiter's curiosity finally got the best of him. "Sir," he asked, staring at Scrornuck, "excuse my boldness, but are you wearing a skirt?"
"It's a kilt. Where I come from, all the men wear them."
"I see. If I may ask, what do your women wear?"
"Skirts, of course."
"Of course." The headwaiter shook his head and walked away, muttering.
Scrornuck and Jape looked at each other for a few seconds, and ear-to-ear grins slowly filled their faces. "Well," Jape said at last, "at least he didn't ask what's underneath it."
"Yeah, he's still got some manners." Scrornuck pointed to the fourth chair at their table-for-three--an elaborately decorated throne, topped by the leering image of Spafu the Friendly Dragon. "What do you suppose that's about?"
Jape shrugged. "We saw last night that the corporate mascot is a big deal here." A moment later the server arrived, and Scrornuck turned his attention to more important matters, ordering a Strong Morning Ale and a glass of red wine.
After ordering a cup of the restaurant's strongest tea, Jape pulled a rolled-up sheet of black material from a pocket of his cape and spread it on the tabletop. "Softscroll, activate," he whispered, and within a few seconds the featureless surface came alive, displaying windows filled with words and pictures. He looked at one of the windows and sighed contentedly. Scrornuck knew that sigh, and busied himself with the morning newspaper while Jape read the message from his family.
After a few minutes, Jape leaned back in his chair with a satisfied smile. "Things are going well back home. That's a nice way to start the week." He pushed the scroll aside. "Anything interesting in the paper?"
"Spafu strips. They're pretty old, but they're still funny." He flipped through the pages. "And this: Disappearances continue. Six missing persons reported in the last week. Almost fifty people, mostly Squatters and transients, have vanished in the last four months. What's a Squatter?"
"Some kind of homeless person, I imagine."
"Mayoral Guards report finding no signs of foul play or other clues."
Jape shrugged. "There may not be any clues. Maybe they just wandered away."
"Could be." Scrornuck turned to the police reports. "Small disturbance at bar in the Cast Quarter. Gaudily attired stranger launches unprovoked attack on distinguished local citizens--unprovoked, my ass--Mayoral Guards dismiss rumors of magical weapons. Looks like we got noticed."
"Couldn't be helped."
The server arrived with drinks and a basket of rolls. Scrornuck set the paper aside, opened the studded leather sporran that hung from his belt, and pulled out a small book bound in well-worn, deep red leather. In contrast to its plain cover, the pages of the book were a work of art, their Latin and Gaelic text surrounded by elaborate illumination. He read a few passages in a voice just above a whisper, then reverently broke a roll in half, bit off a fair-sized chunk, and washed it down with the wine. A few more whispered passages completed the ritual. "Wish I could find a real church," he said.
"You could try that temple we saw last night," Jape suggested.
"Yeah, right." Scrornuck watched Jape's fingers dance over the softscroll, making displays appear and disappear. "Find anything interesting?"
Jape shook his head. "Catalog says next to nothing about the Grand Taupeaquaah Project. To think that UniFlag spent a hundred and forty billion Eunos on this place..."
"A lot?" Scrornuck had little knowledge of billions and even less of what a Euno was worth.
"Hell of a lot--and no records of where it went?" Jape scanned the scroll further. "Now this is interesting: seems UniFlag got into big trouble over something called 'technolepathy.' The records don't say what it was; they just talk about fines and lawsuits." He tapped a few more buttons. "What's this? It turns up in Abe Matthews's final report on STC2108. Technolepathy device imploded, stream crossing uneventful. That's all?" He sighed. "Funny thing about Abe: he'd talk your ear off in person, but when it came time to write a report, he never said more than he absolutely had to."
"Just like these UniFlag folks. Maybe they just weren't into paperwork."
"For a project this expensive? No wonder they went out of business!" He tapped a few more buttons. "The documents are in an obsolete format. They could assign a crypto group to crack them, but it would be a Code One job." He thought for a moment, and then pressed a button labeled Decline. "Probably not worth it just to satisfy our curiosity." He sipped his tea and frowned. "Weak. Oh, well. Let's see if the search agents found anything interesting. Support systems for the City of Taupeaquaah fully on-line at abandonment." He glanced around the restaurant. "I think we already know that." He sighed contentedly. "It's about time we got an assignment with clean beds and decent beer."
"Yeah," Scrornuck said, "I'm up to here with warlords and giant spiders."
"Really?" Jape said with mock surprise. "I thought you loved a good adventure."
"Caught me." Scrornuck grinned and took a swig of his beer. "Still, I'd appreciate some women in these adventures."
"Well, here's your chance." Jape pointed to the restaurant's entrance, where Nalia stood, looking about uncertainly. "She says she likes your butt."
Blushing slightly but also grinning, Scrornuck went to meet Nalia. She wore short brown pants, a sleeveless blue shirt that exposed a good deal of her flat, tanned midriff, and a very light jacket worn as a cape, its sleeves loosely tied around her neck. The outfit covered more than her serving wench uniform had, but he still found the view most pleasant. She'd added a sword to her ensemble, a medium-length, slightly curved blade similar to the ones he'd seen many Taupeaquaahns wearing, and over one shoulder she carried a day-pack big enough to hold a few days' clothing. "Sorry to be late," she said. "The Fortnight of Sacrifice begins today, and there's a huge crowd around the Temple."
"They're really going to spend two weeks burning up furniture and shoes?"
"Sure." The tone of her voice made Scrornuck think he somehow should have known that. "You must be from really far away."
"You could say that." He pointed. "I see you still have your shoes."
A slight tinge of guilt crossed her face as she glanced at her feet, clad in sturdy sandals with hiking-boot soles. "I haven't left a sacrifice in nine months." The guilty look departed quickly. "I can't leave much on what I get paid, and these are the only decent walking shoes I have. The Dragon will have to wait."
Scrornuck leaned back in his chair and watched Jape twirl a breadstick between his fingers as Nalia finished the last of her breakfast. They'd made small talk as they ate, but Scrornuck could see that Jape was itching to discuss business. Fine, he thought, let them. His eyes drooped halfway shut as he settled back to let his meal digest.
"So," she asked as she put her fork down, "what's your proposition?"
"We're not from around here," Jape said. "We don't know the area very well. We've heard about an old building to the southwest that may have something we're interested in--"
"Let's just say we're very interested in what's there, and we're willing to pay for a guide."
"Well, I don't know how much I can help you. I've never been very far from town."
"That may not matter. Instinct tells me you're the right person to accompany us, and I've learned to trust my instincts. Besides, I believe you have a special talent that will be extremely valuable."
"I have a special talent? What is it?"
Jape's voice was dead serious as he said, "I believe you can read minds."
"Yeah, right." She sighed. "And just when I thought I'd found a real job."
Snap! The breadstick crumbled in Jape's fingers. Scrornuck opened his left eye a bit more.
She pushed her chair back from the table, shaking her head in frustration. "Mind reading! Of all the ridiculous..." She dropped her napkin on the table. "Thank you for breakfast," she said formally, "and good day, sir!"
Jape stared as Nalia walked briskly away. Scrornuck hurried toward the door to intercept her.
"And what do you want?" she demanded.
"To buy you a drink."
"What for?" She raised one eyebrow warily.
"Because I want to. I'm new in town, I enjoyed having a beer with you last night, and I hoped you'd enjoy having one with me." He smiled his best smile, hoping she'd find it appealing, and gazed at her face. A part of his mind tried to figure out her ancestry. Her brown eyes, high cheekbones, and the subtle red tint in her tan suggested Native American, while her long legs and the hint of a wave in her brown hair pointed at Scandinavia. Another part of his mind said, who cares? He'd already fallen for her--for the way her hair swung as she spoke, for her melodious voice, and most of all for the way she'd stood up to both that gang of thugs in the bar and Jape.
"Trust me." He smiled again. "We're the good guys."
"Everybody says that," she muttered. "What the hell, a drink is a drink. Let's go."
They sat at the bar, Scrornuck taking a stool with a view of Jape's table. He ordered a Heavy Red Lager, while Nalia opted for a Pale Sunrise White wine. "I notice you're still keeping an eye on your friend," she said as she sipped.
"That's my job. I'm his Protector."
"What's he need protection from?"
"Maybe nothing, maybe a lot. We'll find out, probably before we want to."
"Maybe he needs protection from his own crazy ideas. Really, that rot about me being able to read minds--" She gazed into his bright green eyes and squinted, her forehead wrinkled with concentration. "I haven't the slightest idea what you're thinking."
"Maybe I wasn't thinking anything."
"Yeah, right. You act as though you believe this nonsense."
He shrugged. "Never read anybody's mind, and nobody's ever read mine." He smiled again and tapped the top of his head. "Not much there to read, I'm afraid. But I don't have to believe in mind reading to do my job--I just have to keep my sword handy and my eyes open. Jape's offering you a business deal: we're going to visit something that's important to him, he wants you to come along and he's willing to pay. If he's right, and you can read minds, you've discovered a talent you didn't know you had."
"And if he's wrong?"
"You come home with a pocket full of money."
"How much money?"
"Whatever you ask."
"I could ask a lot."
He lifted the pint that he'd purchased for two of the smallest copper coins. "Judging by the price of beer, I'd ask for three gold pieces a day."
"Three gold pieces?" Her jaw practically bounced off the bar. "I don't make that much in..."
"Three gold pieces a day, plus expenses," he repeated firmly. "At the very least."
"Three gold pieces a day." She looked at Scrornuck, looked across the pub at Jape, listened to the silver pieces rattling in her purse, and quickly downed the remainder of her wine. "I think I can pretend to believe him."
"So, what do you want me to do?" Nalia asked as she returned to her seat. Scrornuck, hearing the negotiations resume, settled back to continue his after-breakfast nap.
"For now, be our local guide on a three-day trip." Jape pointed to the softscroll, which displayed a map showing little more than the city and the forest. "I'm told there's an abandoned building called the Executive Palace down this way. Heard of it?"
"Nope. But you hardly need a guide if you know where you're going."
"There's something else, something with a talent similar to yours. My intuition says it's important to bring you and that something together."
She shook her head as if trying to clear it out. "Do you have any idea what this 'something' is?"
"None at all."
"So we could all get eaten by a dragon or something." Despite the morning's pleasant warmth, she shivered.
Scrornuck opened one eye. "You're afraid of dragons? I thought this town worships the big lizard."
"That's disrespectful," she snapped. "Almost blasphemous. There are people in this town who'd throw you in jail for a remark like that." She shot Scrornuck a look that suggested he must be the dumbest man on earth. "Everybody knows Spafu is the only friendly dragon! The others would just as soon eat you alive."
"Mister Saughblade doesn't know that," Jape said smoothly, "which is why we need you as a guide. We'd like to stay out of trouble as much as we can." He looked pointedly at Scrornuck. "Isn't that right?"
Scrornuck grunted noncommittally.
"As for unfriendly dragons," Jape continued, "that's why I travel with a Protector. He can take care of anything we might encounter."
Nalia looked dubiously at Scrornuck lounging in his chair, half-asleep, with at least two beers in his belly. "I'm not sure he can take care of much."
Jape lobbed a breadstick in Nalia's direction. There was a blur of movement, and suddenly Scrornuck was standing, holding a large knife upon which the breadstick was neatly skewered. "Mister Saughblade is full of surprises," Jape said. "Do we have a deal?"
"Probably," she said. "I don't believe for one second that I can read minds. But I can pretend I do--if the price is right."
"I'll offer five silver pieces a day."
She glanced at Scrornuck, who surreptitiously held up three fingers. Taking a deep breath, she said, "Three gold pieces a day, in advance, plus you provide all food and lodging. Deal?"
Jape looked at Nalia, then at Scrornuck, and again at Nalia. Then, with a slight sigh, he reached into his purse. "You drive a hard bargain."
"I get good advice."
"That you do," Jape said, handing Nalia her nine gold pieces. He left a moderately generous tip, and the three headed for the door.
"The whole world's here!" Scrornuck exclaimed as he stepped through the Guest Gate. The crowd filling Temple Square seemed to have come from everywhere--he saw people in long, loose desert robes, Elizabethan-style tights and ruffled shirts, crisp, modern military uniforms, buckskin and beads, and more. The people themselves were as varied as their dress--while most appeared to be Native American, the crowd included at least a few people from every land on Earth.
Trumpets blared, and a row of young men and women carrying tall poles topped by silver treble clefs and images of Spafu stepped smartly into the Square. Marching bands followed, and behind them came gaily attired dancers, flag-wavers, tumblers, and teams of people singing merrily as they pulled elaborate floats. The floats' ornately costumed passengers threw strings of beads, coins and other baubles to the spectators, and children ran about, weaving and ducking between the adults as they fought mock battles over the trinkets. One child stopped and stared up at Scrornuck with unabashed curiosity for several seconds before giving a shy half-wave and disappearing into the crowd.
A large copper coin sailed over Scrornuck's head, and he instinctively leaped to catch it. "Three free drinks!" he boasted, slipping the coin into his sporran. Nalia won the battle to catch a gaudy string of beads, and with a laugh she placed them around Scrornuck's neck.
The parade's final and most spectacular float was festooned with images of the Friendly Dragon. Its sole passenger was a short, rather pudgy man, resplendent in garish red robes and a turban topped with a golden likeness of Spafu. Scrornuck nudged Nalia. "Who's that?"
"You don't know? That's Rosaiah, the High Priest!" She looked at him as if he'd just asked the world's dumbest question.
The float stopped before the balcony of City Hall, where the Mayor of Taupeaquaah swayed unsteadily. Two Guards supported him: on his right, her arm firmly linked with his, a crisply white-uniformed woman with short blonde hair, and on his left, a bored-looking young man whom Scrornuck instantly recognized. "Hey, isn't that your special friend up there?"
"Yeah," Nalia said. "I guess he wasn't lying when he said he's a big shot."
As the float resumed its movement, the Mayor disappeared behind the balcony's rail, apparently being sick. Scrornuck chuckled. "Looks like he had too much fun last night."
"The Saturday night before the Sacrifice is a big blowout for the whole town," she said. "The Mayor's expected to show leadership."
The High Priest's float came to a graceful halt before the Temple. A horde of muscular young men wearing little more than loincloths quickly extended a gangplank and stood at attention as the Priest sashayed down to the building's grand, curving porch. "Where'd they find these guys?" Scrornuck asked, feeling a little envious.
"There's a big Pageant," Nalia said, keeping her eyes on the men. "We pick the best-looking guys in town to be Acolytes. I once dated a guy who got picked--he spent eight hours a day working out, and a couple days before the Pageant he waxed off all his body hair." She licked her lips. "What a hunk of meat."
"Um." Scrornuck now felt more than a little envious. "Do they have women Acolytes too?"
She nodded. "Spring and fall."
"And do the women dress like that?"
"Of course." Her look made Scrornuck feel like he was setting the world record for stupid questions. "Why else would we pick the girls with the biggest..."
"We get the idea." Jape said.
Scrornuck grinned. "We need to come back in the fall."
The parade disbanded, the floats heading into the short street as the performers mingled with the crowds. Trumpets sounded, and everyone turned to face the Temple as flames and smoke suddenly belched from the mouth and nostrils of the great dragon statue. "Bloody hell," Scrornuck muttered, noticing for the first time the mountains of sacrificial merchandise beneath the dragon's outstretched wings.
Rosaiah walked grandly to the High Altar at the Temple's gate, where he reverently removed his sandals and set them atop the altar. A moment later, flames roared forth, consuming them.
The crowd went wild as the Sacrifice got underway. In seconds the many altars around the Square were ablaze. The Acolytes, soaked in sweat and streaked with soot and ashes, carried armloads of clothing, furniture and footwear to the fires, while the faithful threw more and more offerings onto the piles.
Jape shook his head in amazement as he stared at the spectacle. Scrornuck was less impressed. "Let's get out of here," he muttered, striding purposefully toward the Cast Quarter.
"You!" the High Priest roared as they passed beneath the dragon's flaming mouth. Rosaiah stretched out his arm and pointed at Scrornuck's boots--knee-high dark leather, trimmed with fringe and encrusted with silvery bits that seemed to move as he walked. "That is the finest footwear ever seen in Taupeaquaah! An offering worthy of the High Altar!"
"Not bloody likely," Scrornuck muttered. He pointedly turned his back on the Priest and kept walking.
"Did you not hear?" Rosaiah demanded. "I grant you the honor of making your sacrifice on the High Altar!"
With the crowd blocking their path, the three had no choice but to face the Priest. Jape attempted to intercede. "We are guests in Taupeaquaah," he said, stressing the word guest. "We aren't familiar with your traditions."
"And the mighty Dragon has brought you here to learn! Now come up and make your offering!"
"Forget it, turban-boy!" Scrornuck shouted. "Your pet lizard can buy his own shoes!"
Rosaiah staggered back as if punched in the belly. "Blasphemer!" he bellowed.
"Idolater?" Scrornuck suggested.
"You cannot keep from the Dragon what is rightfully his!"
The crowd closed in around Scrornuck, Jape and Nalia, and more than a few Mayoral Guards moved in their direction. Almost unconsciously, Scrornuck pulled the sword-grip from his belt and gave it a firm squeeze. The sparkling, glass-like blade appeared, nearly five feet long and pointed directly at the Priest. "You want my boots? Well, come and get 'em!"
Scrornuck and Rosaiah stared, unblinking, into each other's eyes for several tense seconds. Finally, the priest turned away, sneering, "Go! You are not yet worthy to offer your gift to the Friendly Dragon! But know this: you will suffer for your arrogance. You will be humbled. You will find out what it means to offend the great Spafu. And before this Fortnight of Sacrifice is out, you will return to this altar and present your offering!"
"In your dreams, Rosey," Scrornuck shouted as he led the group away. "In your dreams!"
"Mister Saughblade," Jape said, as they left the Square and entered the narrow, twisting streets of the Cast Quarter, "can't you go even twenty-four hours without picking a fight?"
Scrornuck shrugged. "He started it."
"You didn't have to pull a weapon," Nalia said. "Nobody was going to hurt you."
"Could've fooled me," Scrornuck said.
"See this?" She pointed to the blue paper tag dangling from a buckle on his jacket. Jape wore a similar tag, clipped to his cape. "We don't harm guests."
"I thought it was a lift ticket." Scrornuck inspected the tag, which bore the word "GUEST" and a number. "So, if I'd been wearing this last night, those guys wouldn't have thrown a punch at me?"
She rolled her eyes skyward. "They were Mayoral Guards. Even off-duty, they're allowed to strike a guest." Her tone implied this should explain everything. It didn't, but he suspected that asking more questions wouldn't, either.
Although Taupeaquaah stood on a flat plain, the streets of the Cast Quarter constantly rose and fell, providing a fine place from which to watch the duel that had suddenly erupted on a street corner. A man and a woman, neither much over seventeen, stood in the center of the intersection, swords raised, as a crowd gathered. With great formality, the woman removed a ring from her left hand, dropped it on the pavement and stepped on it.
Jape leaned against a lamppost to watch. "What's going on?"
"Broken engagement," Nalia said. "She had his ring on her left hand, and he's still wearing her Residence Pass around his neck..."
"What's a Residence Pass?"
Rolling her eyes in a way that suggested she was earning those three gold pieces, she held up the small bronze token hanging from a chain around her neck. "Here's mine--it's the key to my apartment in the Cast Quarter. My parents bought it for me when I finished school. He gave her the ring when they got engaged, she gave him her Pass as a symbol of the life they'd share. Now that they're breaking up she wants it back, and he doesn't want to return it."
The duel began with a series of thrusts and parries that struck Scrornuck as rather ceremonial. "They're not exactly out for blood, are they?" he said. "She could have taken his head off if she wanted to."
"That'd be uncivilized!" Nalia said indignantly. "They're just settling a disagreement."
The woman spun around and put a foot in the man's stomach. As he staggered back she grazed his cheek with the tip of her sword, just enough to draw blood. Then, the matter apparently settled, both lowered their weapons and bowed. He handed her the Residence Pass, picked up the flattened ring, and walked away while the onlookers applauded.
Scrornuck scratched his head and stared. "That's it?"
"She drew blood, she got her Pass back, the engagement is over."
First blood ends the duel? Scrornuck thought, and exploded in laughter. "I'm gonna love this place!"
Nalia giggled and Jape did his best to ignore Scrornuck as he sang:
Here we come a-waddling, all through the grocery store,
Up and down the aisles, load the shopping cart with more!
Pretzels, munchies, chips and beer,
Will give you a giant rear,
And you'll be on a starvation diet all next year!
Lay off the beer if you don't want a giant rear!
They were, in fact, pushing a small cart through the aisles of the If We Don't Have It, You Don't Need It Convenience Emporium, loading it up with such necessities as a skin of wine, a six-pack each of light lager and Batatat's Stout, generous hunks of meat, cheese and bread, and various snacks. When it seemed the cart would hold no more, Jape paid from his seemingly inexhaustible purse, and they wheeled their load into the street.
Nalia stopped at a small nook in the outer wall of the store and inserted her Residence Pass into a slot. Two gold pieces and a few silver coins dropped into her waiting hand.
She noticed Jape watching her with a curious expression. "It's payday," she said. "Everybody with a Pass gets this allowance once a week. You can live on it, but if you want to enjoy much of life you still need a job."
"This is your allowance for a full week?" Jape inspected her handful of money. "And I'm paying you three gold pieces a day?"
She nodded. "I got some good advice."
Jape glanced pointedly at Scrornuck, who looked back with an innocent expression. "I guess you did."