Only one road leads to the little Berkshire town of Ufham, and the turnoff for it is hard to find unless you're Sundered. It becomes the main street, though without acquiring any pavement, running straight south to north, until it terminates before the athletic field of the cavalry base. On either side, Ufham spreads out in wandering lanes. The road itself is broad; they like to do things spaciously in Ufham.
The little car, bright yellow, puttered along carefully. The early November evening was closing in, but the road was still crowded: one or two lorries and a few bicycles, but mostly foot-traffic, human and hoofed. Not all the hoofed traffic was horses—or not "horses-simple," as the locals put it.
The driver slowed further and goggled at the variety of pedestrians, but then looked around for a place to park; there were no parking spaces marked, and, as mentioned, no pavement to mark them on. He pulled up beside a water trough, but before he could turn off the engine, someone rapped on the car roof. Leaning over to peer out the passenger window, he saw one of the un-simple horses.
The man's face was framed by a cowboy hat and a flowing beard. The beard spread over the chest of a brown T-shirt, below which stood the body of a brown horse with black legs and tail—"bay" did they call that? "Excuse me, sir," the centaur said. "That might be wanted." He waved at the water trough. Horse trough, specifically. "If you would, please pull up a few feet and park in front of that store window."
"Oh," said the driver. "I see. Thank you." He pulled up and got out. The centaur had paced along. "Sorry about that," he said to the driver. "There are actually plenty of parking spaces here, but I'm afraid we locate them by memory." He smiled and extended a hand down to the human. "Welcome to Ufham. Cavalryman Jason Fontaine at your service. Sorry to nag."
Of course, in a little Sundered place like this, he was instantly known as a stranger. The driver didn't even think about it. Instead, he shook the proffered hand and said, "Not at all. Thank you. Bart Coy." He gave a habitual smile, then reflexively pulled a business card out with his free hand and passed it to Fontaine. "Do you know where I could find Roland Vimont? He's, uh, one of you. Dedicated Cavalry."
"Vimont? Don't place the name. Is he new?"
Coy nodded. "Joined this summer."
"Ah. Then he'll still be in training. You could ask Captain Fletcher. He's the teacher. He might still be in his office. It's over there, in those buildings just east of the field. Only everyone's out and about tonight. Still, Fletcher might know." He quirked a brief smile. "Knows a lot. Or you could look around for some youngsters up on hooves, likely to be your friend's classmates."
The bay pony-soldier glanced at the business card:
for Sundery and All
"You here for Bonfire Night?" Fontaine asked.
"Yes. Doing a gig over at Wiffbourne Hill. Hope to see you there."
Fontaine smiled again, gave a casual salute but no commitment, and faded into the evening at an easy trot.
Most people relax when a stranger leaves, especially if it's a very strange stranger. Coy tensed up and looked worried. An onlooker would have seen that the relaxed manner had been a pose.
Coy was a slender man, in white slacks and dress shirt, protected from the evening chill by a blue woolen dress jacket. His dark hair was curly and enough longer than the mode to be noticeable. Clearly a city man in the country. His face, now tight, was heart-shaped, with big hazel eyes, and avoided looking feminine by the carefully edged fashionable scruff.
He pulled out a pen and another business card, wrote VIMONT blackly on the back, and tucked it under the wiper of his car. It was a very long longshot, but he had to take every chance of finding Vimont. Then he deliberately relaxed again and joined the foot traffic, looking for Vimont or anyone who might know Vimont.
He reached into his jacket again and pulled out a little stick, an L-shaped piece of polished wood, and twiddled it by the short leg. As he twiddled, he looked around.
A small country village at evening would, you might think, be very quiet. But evening was early and people still had things to do. And in any case tonight was Bonfire Night, Guy Fawkes Night. The issues of that event did not really concern Grand Normandy—it hadn't been their government under threat—but, hey, any excuse for a party, right?
Not so very many centaurs, but they stood out, being so big. None appeared to be Vimont, though. Where was the van? Ah, coming in just now. A small white van nosed carefully down the street, through the varied pedestrians. The side of the van bore the same message as his business card, plus the silhouette of a boy-child dancing and playing a pipe. Coy marched over and waved it to the store front next down from his car, carefully away from the door.
Timmy Tips and Caper got out, two young men in rock-band T-shirts, hugely baggy pants, and baggy knitted berets. "How's it going at the venue?" he asked them.
"Fine, sir," said Timmy. "The tables are all set up, but Corno said nothing but coffee and tea until you got back." Normally, Coy would have been overseeing everything.
"Right. This thing all emptied out?"
"Yessir." They looked at the van, then to him. He had not told them why he wanted the van emptied out, and he did not tell them now.
"Right. Got fliers?" They nodded. "Right. I'm trying to find Roland Vimont. Got that? Roland Vimont. He's a centaur now. Here's what he looked like." He showed them the picture on his phone. "Probably got a beard now. They all seem to." He glanced at their faces; both Timmy and Caper wore goatees, neatly pointed and waxed, in preparation for tonight's performance. "Ask around. Distribute the fliers as an excuse. He's an old friend of your boss, if people ask."
"But be discreet?" Timmy asked.
Coy started to say "of course" but paused and said, "This time, it's more important to just find him. Phone me as soon as you get anything. Now–" He was in the act of giving a final look-over to their appearance, which would, he supposed, have to do. He halted, spotting their bare feet. "No shoes?" It looked odd on a November night.
"None fit, sir," said Caper. They were dancers and of course fussy about such things. And limping and losing shoes would have drawn attention too. Yes, it would just have to do.
Coy nodded. "Go," he said, making a shooing motion. They reached into the van, pulled out handfuls of fliers, and went.
Coy went to the back of the van and opened the door. Yes, properly cleared out. Even some packing blankets on the floor. He supposed it was big enough for a horse, if it knelt. He closed it up and headed for the end of the street, where, according to the friendly Mr. Fontaine, you could find Vimont's trainer, who might know where he was. He stared up at a couple of other centaurs he passed, who failed to be Vimont. He wondered how tall Vimont was now. He'd been blocky and burly before the change. Must be a regular plowhorse now. The Honorable Plowhorse—what a comedown.
Here was the racetrack. Now, where was the trainer's office? For that matter, where were Timmy and Caper? They probably weren't properly in the groove yet. Yes, there they were, on the other side, trailing after a centaur with a rider. The creature was manifestly not Vimont; Coy could tell even at this distance and in this light; but the rider was a woman, which explained their distraction.
He phoned them. "What are you doing?" he asked with weary patience they knew well.
"What you said, boss." "Looking for a centaur."
"Vermont?" "Vicomte Roland."
"Vimont. I'm sending you his picture. Try in that pub." They could certainly find a pub. "Ask around. Vimont. Roland Vimont. A student. And you have no money, so you can't order drinks." Or they could, but it would end badly. What likelier than that this pub would have a thousand-pound bouncer with brass knuckles, iron shoes, and a kick exactly like a mule's? "You're passing out fliers, but he's my old friend so you're asking around. That's the story."
"Right, boss." "Yessir."
"And don't hang up." That way, he could listen in on them from time to time.
He sauntered his way down the street, pausing to look back and see Timmy and Caper vanish into the pub. Finally, he came to the athletic field.
By stepping off the street,onto the grass, he was officially entering the cavalry base, he supposed, but several other civilian-looking people had done the same and were standing by the railing at the edge of the field. The dowsing stick had led him here, but he wondered why.
The field was brightly lit. An oval track of bare earth ran around the perimeter. It was presently occupied by six equines, some with riders. Four of the equines were centaurs; the other two were horses. Everybody was diligently clipping about the track, but they did not seem to be racing.
He felt thudding in the earth and presence at his back. Turning, he saw a pair of centaurs. Both towered over him, of course, the bigger a bit over seven feet, the smaller a bit under. They gazed over his head, at the runners.
"Are they practicing for something?" Coy asked.
"For various things," the bigger one said. He was heavily built, his coat red-brown, his curly hair red, his beard redder. His companion was much more lightly built and black-haired. Both were in dress uniform: vivid blue cowboy hats, red jackets with white piping, blue saddle blankets matching the hats with the royal coat of arms blazoned on each flank.
The big centaur started pointing things out: "The lone horse there is practicing following without a lead. See the pair trotting ahead of him?" The pair were a man on the back of a centaur. "The gal on the other horse is just exercising her, I think. The rest are puttin' themselves through their paces, literally." He flickered a smile. His accent was Irish.
"D'ye know horse paces?" asked the black-coated one. He was Irish too. Coy shook his head. "There are a slew of 'em. Besides walk-trot-canter-gallop, there's a million ways to amble: single-foot, fox-trot, ravaal, racking, paso fino, paso corto, paso largo... That fella there is tölting—pretty fast but very smooth. Good for moving wounded."
"But," said the red one, smiling, "right now they're practicing for a show this Christmas. A tölt looks very smart on a parade ground."
"Ah. Do you gentlemen, ah, tolt?" Coy asked.
They laughed. "Not us," said the red. "We're trainees. I feel lucky when I go for a gallop and don't pull anything."
Trainees. Bingo. "Do you gentlemen know Roland Vimont? He's a trainee." He twirled the dowsing stick triumphantly and tucked it away.
The red nodded. "We're classmates of his. Let me make introductions. This here," he said, gesturing to his fellow, "is the Honorable Bennett Darcy and I'm William Donovan." He then smiled with lifted brows, awaiting the reciprocal introduction.
"I'm Bart Coy," he said, and passed out two of his cards. "Do you have any idea where Mr. Vimont might be?"
The two traded glances, then Darcy said, "He usually visits Zelda for a bit when he starts free time."
"Oh, right." He faintly recalled that Vimont had a horse, but then Vimont had so many things—the London flat, the cars, the motorbike. None of those could he use now. Nor, for that matter... "He kept his horse?"
Darcy rolled his eyes. Donovan laughed and took a couple of paces, half turning his flank to Coy, at the same time spreading arms wide to him—'Look at me,' the pose said. "We like horses here!" he proclaimed. "Vimont too. And he could afford to bring her along, so he did."
Darcy smiled. "He didn't think it through, really. He was very down-hearted the day he realized he couldn't ride her any longer." Yes, that sounded like Vimont's mental speed. "So we've been helping him train her to packing and haulage. Light haulage. He takes her for walks and like that." He pointed at the track. "You might have found him running her round the track on lead."
Coy smiled back and shook his head. Vimont did not seem to have picked up any brains or lost any income. Both good. "I see. I guess. And where might I find him and, uh, Zelda?"
Darcy pointed back toward the pub. "Zelda's at the Bow and Sabre. They have a livery stable out back. We'll show you." He trotted off, Donovan following, then slowed to a walk to accommodate the human.
Coy eyed his new-found guides. One an Honorable, probably a baron's son, and the other didn't say he wasn't an Hon—some were modest about it. But at least two sprigs of nobility in the trainee class. He'd always heard that both Grand Norman cavalries, Dedicated and Standard, ran to posh, and this bore it out. Both were also known as places where the nobility disposed of extraneous sons. Coy felt sure that was what had happened to Vimont; the fellow was eldest but had a brother and one or two sisters, and if Daddy Vimont had a lick of sense, he'd rather see any of them inherit the title. And you don't inherit titles if you're not fully human. Problem solved.
Coy wondered if the black centaur, this Honorable Bennett Darcy, had been thrown away. Didn't look it. Moved with a jaunty prance, as did his big red friend. Doing the gracious act, showing a stranger around. Of course, that could just be keeping up appearances.
Speaking of appearances, why were they in dress uniform? Or dress jackets, anyway. He raised his voice to say, "You gentlemen look very well turned out. Smart on a parade ground, as you said. Going to a Bonfire Night?"
"Thank you, sir," said Darcy, looking back. "Yessir, over at Wiffbourne Hill." He glanced at Coy's card and asked, "And you, sir?" He and his friend, Donovan, fell back a few paces and Coy found himself bracketed by politely interested monsters.
He smiled and nodded. "Working night for me, though. Speaking of work, excuse me." He raised his phone and accelerated to get a couple of yards of privacy. It occurred to him that, as the person being guided, he should have fallen back, but his tension had propelled him forward. In any case, it was clear they were headed for that pub.
He heard clinking glass and many voices through the phone. Natural for a pub but it meant they likely wouldn't hear him call to them. He hit the app that made their phones vibrate—a bit of custom-ware for attracting attention without noise. He'd often found it useful, but should he have saved the money? Too late now.
"Yessir?" "Yes, boss?"
"I'm being shown where he is. I'm headed for the pub. Come out and meet me. I'm with a couple of pony-soldiers."
"Everything okay, sir?" asked Timmy.
"Sunshine and lollipops," Coy answered flatly. "Ah." He saw the two emerge from the pub and waved to them. They converged, casting glances at Darcy and Donovan.
"So they're business," reflected Donovan, watching Timmy and Caper trail obediently behind Coy. "To the left and down that alley, sir," he called. "Then turn right." To Darcy: "What do you suppose his business is with Rollo?" 'Rollo' was Vimont.
"Maybe he owes this fellow money," suggested Darcy. "I could see Rollo owing money to a professional party-thrower. Not that he couldn't pay; he'd just've mislaid the bill."
Donovan nodded with a shrug, agreeing to the possibility. "But if those two are supposed to be his backup, they don't look tough enough."
"Maybe he's an outraged brother and they're his friends. Mm. Or servants," Darcy amended, studying the expressions and body language of the three men walking before them.
Donovan chuckled. "Oh, dearie-dear. What if Rollo has offspring on the way and him no longer able to make the arrangement official?" Centaurs were not allowed to marry.
"He can still acknowledge the child and support the mother," Darcy answered stiffly.
Donovan nodded and shut up. He was not, in fact, an Honorable, but his family had worked for Darcy's for generations, and the two had grown up together—considered themselves foster-brothers, in fact. He and his friend were the creatures they were in part because Darcy took family responsibilities so seriously. The Darcys had lost a lot of money in the last generation and one reason Ben had joined the Dedicated Cavalry was because it paid you very well for taking a permanent transformation and a vow of fourteen years' service. A third of Darcy's salary went to his family's debts; it would have been half, but his father had talked him down.
Another reason was that Donovan's uncle Evan was already in the Dedicated Cavalry and was a very happy man-horse.
They had now gone down the alley at the side of the pub and rounded the corner. In keeping with the main street, the alley behind the pub was broad, a road of pounded earth. On their left was a thick, high hedge defending a lane of private dwellings. On their right was the livery stable end of the Bow and Sabre: a wooden structure with two doorways leading into two rows of stalls. By now, it was night and the area was lit by a single lamp between the two doorways.
The two centaurs caught up with Coy and his boys, and steered them into the further doorway. "Here's Zelda," said Darcy, nodding at a light gray horse in a stall two in from the door. She was looking with mild interest over the side of her stall, into the next space. They didn't see Vimont.
The happy noise of a pub on Guy Fawkes Night did not quite cover the sound of a nearby male voice, muffled, talking and laughing. "Vimont?" called Donovan. "Is that you? There's a friend of yours here to see you."
Donovan and party came up to a bay between stalls just as the male voice stopped, to be replaced with growling in a female voice. The intruders came to a dead halt. "Woops!" exclaimed Donovan. Darcy went crimson.
The bay between the stalls was big enough for a horse to stand in, and held trunks and cabinets for storing brushes, bits of tack, and other equestrian paraphernalia. At the moment, it also held a layer of straw with two blankets on it. The top blanket was in great agitation.
There was no room to turn, but Donovan started to back. "Ben-boy! Did you notice those fine bushes back there?" he asked, laughing.
"What?" Darcy started backing too. On departure, he grabbed Caper, who had been watching the tossing blanket calmly but registered alarm as Darcy's hand closed on his shoulder.
"Bushes! Let's take a look at the bushes!" Donovan grabbed Timmy.
"Bushes. Right." Darcy addressed Coy: "Mister! You! Let's go!" But there was no one to grab Coy. He stood there for a second, his mouth tight, then turned to face into the opposite bay.
A few seconds later, Donovan and Darcy were back in the alley, where they released their captives. Coy came striding out a moment later. Conversation drifted after him:
"'Why wait?' indeed!"
"Sorry, Olive! Honestly, most nights, it's dead quiet back here!"
"Hand me my jacket. Where's the other boot? Idiot!"
"Not you! Well, yes, you, but I meant me, for listening to you!"
Donovan stood by the hedge but he was not studying the bushes; he was studying the faces of his companions. The two servants showed no shock or embarrassment, only some worry as they stared at Coy. Coy looked angry and worried, not embarrassed, and as if he were thinking very hard. Ben Darcy did look embarrassed, though he also wore a half-grin. But as Donovan watched, the expression shifted to curiosity. Donovan followed his friend's gaze: he was watching one of the servants adjusting his baggy beret, knocked loose in the hasty retreat. He was just in time to see a long, pointed ear slip under the hat.
Donovan then noticed the thin shirts, the baggy pants, the bare feet, and added them up. He glanced at Darcy, who was busy glancing back.
Perhaps a little diversion was in order. "Poor Vimont!" exclaimed Donovan. "It's traditional to hang a necktie on the doorknob in such situations, but unfortunately neither doorknobs nor neckties were available. Ye must understand that lowly trainees such as ourselves have very little privacy. Finding any is an exercise in ingenuity, and that's not a muscle Mr. Vimont is used to working. He's game, though. Is this the fourth time or the fifth, Ben?"
"Fifth that I know of. I hope the lady's not a civilian."
"It'll be okay if it's Nadine or Ella."
"Didn't sound like either of them."
Timmy, he of the errant beret, looked up at Donovan and said, "I thought you weren't allowed to go after girls."
Donovan smiled down at the small ... man. "We aren't allowed to consummate. Not that it's in the cards anatomically, in any case, but they like to spell these things out."
"'Consummate'?" echoed Timmy, looking to Coy. Coy supplied a one-syllable translation.
"But we're allowed to use our imaginations," Donovan went on. "And there Vimont has exerted himself."
"I ought to go," Coy muttered, then, to everyone, "We ought to go."
"Quite right," said Darcy, but Coy turned and gazed at the stable door, clearly unwilling to leave. Darcy took a couple of steps, Donovan followed, but then it was too late to withdraw from the situation.
A young woman came striding out of the stable, brunette, athletic, in the ruddy brown T-shirt and jacket, and blue denim pants and stetson, that were the Standard Cavalry duty uniform. The hat was a bit askew, the jacket was not yet buttoned, and she was fastening a small amulet around her neck—Coy noticed it in passing; it was probably for privacy against scrying and the reason his dowsing stick had pointed him to Darcy and Donovan rather than straight to Vimont.
Behind her loomed Vimont. He was bearded now, as predicted, and naked. He looked in rather better shape than Coy remembered, from the waist up. From the waist down, he was now a blocky beast, a light, creamy brown; perhaps he was in good shape there, too; Coy wouldn't know. His tail and the wisps of feathering at his various feet were the slightly darker sandy brown of his head hair. He looked quite the plowhorse Coy had expected, to Coy's own eyes. He bore a wad of clothing and an apologetic expression. "I am sorry, Olive!"
"Oh, it's all right," she said, finishing the jacket buttons. "No one's fault, really. But the mood is rather shattered. I'll see you about." She shifted her gaze to Darcy and Donovan, who came to attention, saluted crisply, and gave little stamps of their right rear hooves, which did duty for clicking the heels they no longer had. "You gentlemen have business with Mr. Vimont?"
"Actually, this gentleman does, sergeant." Darcy indicated Coy.
Coy started a bit; he had been gazing at Vimont. It was something of a shock to see someone you knew, even slightly, so radically transformed. He was used to more minor transformations. "I do apologize," he said to the sergeant, switching on the smile. He produced a card. "I'm hosting a party over at Wiffbourne tonight. Allow me to invite you."
Sgt. Olive pocketed the card with a muttered "Thanks" but without any enthusiasm. She turned to go.
"Uh, Olive," Vimont began. "Uh, sergeant," he tried.
"Rollo, I think we all know the level of formality here," she said, turning back. "What?"
He dropped all the clothes except for a jacket, rummaged in its pocket, and produced a small box. "I thought– A little holiday present– So the evening isn't a total– Um."
Olive took it doubtfully, flipped it open, and immediately returned it. "Thank you, but no." The onlookers had seen something sparkly in the lamplight.
"Not good enough?" he asked, abashed.
"Too good," she told him. "Look, a beer at the pub, flowers, even a picnic is fine, but not things I could cash in. I have my honor." She looked up at Vimont's baffled face. "You really don't understand, do you? Well, we'll go into it next time. There will be a next time because you're a nice cuddle and I think you've basically got a good heart. A nice pair of 'em. But not now, with people standing around with their ears flapping." She cast a final glance at the five others in the alley, which Darcy and Donovan entirely failed to see because they were staring studiously in random directions. "Ta." She departed.
Vimont watched her forlornly, then turned to Darcy and Donovan. "St. Martin's crupper, fellows! Could your timing have been any worse?"
"A bit, a bit," said Donovan. "I think ten minutes later would have been distinctly worse. But, Rollo, how were we to know? 'The evening is young. Rollo's probably off to give Zelda her usual stroll.' What else could we think? We are sorry."
"That sergeant is a deal too good for you," Darcy added. "If she does give you a second chance, take it. Nine out of ten women would just have shrieked and fled."
"You know that, do you?" Vimont grumbled, though he did not seem disposed to raise the conversational temperature.
"Just my estimate. But what do you think?"
Vimont said nothing but turned to Coy. "Barty? What are you doing here? At this very moment," he added sourly. He bent over, plucked a T-shirt out of the pile of clothes, and started putting it on.
Coy sprang into action. "Very sorry about the timing, old fella, but I came to tell you some good news! I'm hosting a spree over at Wiffbourne–"
"Yes, I heard," Vimont grumbled. He leaned down again and retrieved his utility belt.
"–and Deirdre will be there!" Coy grinned hugely.
Vimont stared. "Deirdre? From Avignon?"
"Yes! She'll be delighted to see you. I assume you were planning on coming?"
"Uh, yes." Vimont looked back at the stable. "Later on."
"Excellent! Do you need a ride? I've got one ready."
"What? Oh, no. We're our own transport now. We just cut through the woods. The fays don't mind. Not tonight. We could escort you, if you like. Much shorter."
Coy's eyes flicked up the alley road, to where tree tops were just visible against the dark sky. "Ah, no, got to take the van back, and the car. You will be coming, won't you? Deirdre will be counting on seeing you."
Deprived of one treat, Vimont was perfectly happy to aim for the next. "Oh, to be sure!" He plucked his hat from the ground, leaving only the saddle blanket.
"Great, great. Well, see you in a bit. And good to see you again, old fella. You, ah, you look splendid, uh, that way."
"'Up on hooves,' we say," Donovan told him.
"Right. Thanks. 'Up on hooves.' Anyway, give us about an hour to set up, then come over any time. Don't miss it! See you!" And he left, trailed by his two servants.
When Coy was well out of earshot, Darcy turned to Vimont, who was doubled up, buckling his saddle blanket, and asked, "You know your friend is a faunmaster, right?"
"(Uhn.) What?" He straightened. "Oh, yes. Livens up a party and gives the poor buggers employment. Well, I'd best get my dress duds on. Walk over with me?"
"Sure," said Darcy. "Meet you at the path."
Vimont started away. "Hey!" called a high voice from the stable. The caller stood in the middle of the doorway. It was a skinny figure, about two feet high. It had a squirrel-like face and tail, and wore T-shirt and jeans for a toddler, though these did not fit well. "What about that straw and those blankets?" it demanded of Vimont.
He looked baffled. "I thought you fellows tidied up that sort of thing."
"We look after the simple horses, not you lot. You lot need to learn to pick up after yourselves."
"Oh. Ah, understood." Vimont dug in a pouch at his belt and produced a large coin. "This once, could I ask you to do it? I'm in a bit of a hurry." He tossed it to the stable brownie, who caught it, sniffed a little scorn, but then turned away.
"Remember your glamour kerchief!" Donovan called after Vimont as he left.
Earlier that week:
Captain Fletcher clopped into the lecture hall carrying a small cardboard box. He noted how Littlejohn and Corliss, much the most magically savvy of the lads, focused on it. No doubt both were trying to riddle out the spells in it.
"You may wonder why we allow you to go to Wiffbourne at all. After all, Guy Fawkes Night is nothing to us. Well, probably the brass would rather I didn't say so–" That always got their attention. "–but it's less trouble to let you go than to cope with the discipline problems that result from forbidding you. Anyway, why forbid? It's a Learning Opportunity." Hear the capitals and take caution. "If you go, you will learn how to do three important things: wear glamour, navigate the Sundering, and meet strangers.
"We are no strange sight to anyone in Ufham. But the folk on Wiffbourne Hill usually see only a few of us once a year, mostly on Bonfire Night. They will be curious. They will be nervous. You are guests. So you will mind your manners, act with restraint, keep your temper if necessary, and answer silly questions with patience." Fletcher would repeat and elaborate on this theme several times before the class was over.
"As for the Sundering, the folk of Wiffbourne Hill are not Grand Norman, but they are Sundered. The rest of the Wiffbourne folk are not even Sundered. You absolutely must not appear before them without glamour. I'll put it another way: You are not going to appear to them, at least not in any numbers or frequency. The Sundering will prevent you. Which is to say, you will have as much bad luck as necessary to keep you out of sight. On the other hand, if you try to stay out of sight or to stay glamoured, you will have good luck in doing that." They should have heard this on their mothers' knees, but had they been listening? When they sat on those knees, it had been easy to pass in the monde-minor. They had looked the same as the unSundered. No more.
"So you want to know how to use your glamour." He put the cardboard box down on the lectern and began pulling out neckerchiefs, tossing them to the students one by one. They were all the same: big, the same blue as their hats, edged in white with a little pattern of riding cowboys. "Operating it is very simple. Just put on the neckerchief." He pulled out his own and demonstrated.
Having planned this, he finished first. Before his students' eyes, he rippled like a reflection on water, then appeared ... rearranged: an old man, white-haired and white-bearded but vigorous, sat on a dun horse, tan with brown legs, tail, and back stripe. His jacket, as before, was ruddy brown; his pants—pants from nowhere—were the utilitarian blue of the Standard Cavalry duty uniform. He watched his pupils, and as he watched, the dun horse appeared to watch too, glancing where he glanced, with the same reserved interest. (The class had no problem recognizing the horse's expression as the same as the man's. They had all been able to read horse body language since the moment they stood up on hooves.)
Corliss and Littlejohn stared back at him with expressions very like his own, sharp and interested, then set to work tying their neckerchiefs. Donovan, Darcy, and Vimont had glanced, laughed, and quickly set to. One by one, each centaur resolved into a young man on a horse.
They stared at each other, then down and back along themselves. After laughing his fill, Littlejohn raised his hand and asked, "Sir, is there a trick to working the horse head? Yours has expression and all, but ours look ready to doze off."
"Yes, well, rank hath its privileges," Fletcher said. The horse worked its lips. "Mine is a bespoke article made for me by Iris de Voil, here in town. She does a lot of the cavalries' glamours. You, I'm afraid, have batch-cast standard issue glamours. There's no trick. Your horse-head images won't do much more than blink. In fact, you'll notice that, except for coloring, they are all the same horse head. And you all have exactly the same pants and legs. If you want bespoke, tell Miss de Voil now and she could have something ready for you by Christmas.
"Meanwhile, nobody, neither you nor I, has a horse head or man's legs that are more than artistically colored air. Keep them away from the mondaine-minors if you meet any.
"Another thing to notice is that, when people talk to you, they will stare at a point behind your back. That's where they see you. My man-torso is really here, above and in front of my withers, where it always is, but it looks like it's almost a meter further back..."
He went on to give more detail about the abilities and limitations of the glamour, then had them mime using reins, which were part of the illusion. Vimont was the best at this, being the one who had ridden the most, back when that was an option, so Fletcher had him model while Fletcher himself talked; there were enough classes where Vimont did not shine.
He finished with, "Remember, if anyone asks, you're visiting from the 'riding academy' here. The Sundered folk know better—I think some of 'em can probably see through the glamour—but sometimes a few unSundered from off the Hill trickle over out of curiosity. If necessary, tell them you 'can't' dismount because it's part of a training program. This is true. The mondaine-minors just won't realize that the horse and rider are both the same student." They grinned. He dismissed them.
"So they're all going," Fletcher muttered to Lieutenant Sanders.
"From what I've heard, yessir."
"Then, this year, so do I."
"Any more visions about it, sir?"
"No. The one in August wasn't that ominous, but it doesn't do to ignore them."
"Want company, sir?"
"Is this everybody?" asked Littlejohn. He stood with his classmates—Donovan, Darcy, Vimont, and Corliss—at the head of the main path into Ufham Wood. With them were Mrs. Littlejohn riding her husband, another centaur bearing his date, and four fully bipedal couples consisting of three cavalry riders and five townsfolk. It seemed that this was all for this batch. People would trickle through the wood for a few hours, usually in groups and twos, hardly ever alone.
"Right, then," Littlejohn said, and led the way in. This was the main entrance; the path was almost wide enough for two equines. On either side, the wood was fairly open. During the day, people from the base and the town came and went freely. There was no problem, so long as you weren't destructive or silly enough to be rude to a fay. But at night, the fays asserted their ownership more firmly and Arrangements had to be made for entry.
The group paused inside and Corliss, who had made a point of meeting the local fays, called, "Return and we return."
After some seconds, a windy voice answered, "Keep faith and so do we," from somewhere deep in the wood. People relaxed and moved forward again.
Around the first bend, they halted again. A large rock lay tucked into the curve of the bend. It was unshaped but set with a flat side up. There were crumbs on this improvised table, and a neat stack of used paper cups. This was not the first group through tonight.
People relaxed a little more and, by the lights on their phones, unpacked their, well, offerings. There was a generous pile of little soul cakes: store-bought biscuits but with homemade rowan-berry icing. There was a big thermos of hot eggnog with nutmeg and a fresh stack of paper cups. All was spread on a layer of paper napkins.
The mortals stood back, wearing expressions of pleasant expectation.
The phantasmagoria stepped forth: creatures they worked with and saw about town and base all day, but now on their own ground, in their own time. Still... the Good Neighbors, right? Out came:
A number of cubit-high stick figures, possibly made of genuine sticks, clad in smartly fitted autumn leaves.
A hamster-sized couple, in mouse-gray fur, their hair and his beard as white as thistle-down, both with conical red caps.
Three figures like seven-year-old children, two girls and a boy, all dressed in white linen tunics, their skin, hair, and eyes various shades of green.
An anthropomorphic squirrel like the stable brownie—his cousin, in fact.
A black-haired woman in something like a green sari, her face of a beauty more feline than human.
A fox in a blue vest.
A hedgehog, apparently unfazed by the fox.
A wren and two crows, out well past the roosting time of natural birds.
The mortals smiled at the fays; the fays with lips smiled back, but no one started eating or drinking. Then another figure stepped out of the darkness, with no sound of parting branches. Human-high, he wore cavalry dress uniform, as did several of the mortals: red jacket with white piping, vivid blue pants and hat. But he was point-eared and goldenly cat-eyed, and beyond the ends of his Victorian handlebar mustache grew cat whiskers that reached as wide as his shoulders.
This was the Colonel. Sometimes he looked more human than this, sometimes less. His background was cloudy rumor to these young mortals: Was he a cavalryman who had died and joined the fays? Or just joined the fays? Or a fay who joined the cavalry? Or just fancied the uniform? Some people called him "Colonel Ufham," others "Colonel Woods," the more cautious "the Colonel of Ufham Woods." Their seniors might know more. But now just "sir" seemed best. All the cavalry folk came to attention and saluted. The centaurs stamped.
But all was well. He smiled, picked up a paper cup of eggnog, toasted them, and drank. The other fays followed. The mortals relaxed, smiled again, variously bowed and saluted, gathered up the used cups, and passed on.
"First time I've laid eyes on him," Vimont remarked to Corliss as they trotted side by side.
"That you know of," answered Corliss with a sideways grin.
"The Colonel may be the best shapeshifter in town, says the scuttlebutt. Passerby, stray cat, bit of clear air—he could be any of 'em. Or that's the rumor."
"Oh. Uh, could he do anything for you?" For, although all the centaurs were volunteers in theory, Corliss had "volunteered" to appease the wrath of an enraged goblin in whose woods he had been caught poaching.
Corliss's smile turned rueful and he shook his head. "I asked around. I'm not the first to ask. He doesn't transform others, just casts seemings and glamours."
Vimont nodded, the gloom hiding the confusion on his face. He could never keep straight the distinctions between glamour, seeming, and genuine transformation.
"Speaking of transformations," said Donovan from behind them, "who's this faunmaster friend of yours, Rollo?"
"Faunmaster?" said a man's voice down the file, sounding slightly shocked.
"What is a faunmaster?" asked Mrs. Littlejohn. "Remember, we're new." She and her husband had only recently become Grand Norman subjects, she being Canadian, he Scottish, by birth.
"It's anyone who holds the service oaths of a bunch of satyrs," Donovan answered. Then, since they were new, he asked, "What do you know about satyrs?"
"Well, we researched them..."
"To be sure." The Littlejohns were nothing if not scholarly.
"Satyrs," said Littlejohn, launching into lecture, "are transformations, like us. They look more like figures from ancient Greek pottery than like Renaissance paintings: no goat legs, but horns, pointed ears, tails of horses or asses, and a baculum."
"Baculum?" asked Vimont, who thought he knew about satyrs.
"That bone that lets 'em keep it up all the time," Donovan supplied. "That and bein' naturally randy."
"Oh," said Vimont, who had not known there was a bone involved, just enthusiasm.
"And less obvious stuff," Littlejohn went on. "A tapetum, so their eyes shine. Cat-whiskers. Thick pads on their feet. And they're tough: they can live outdoors in most weathers and get by on browsing leaves.
"The down side," he went on, smoothly overriding a dirty joke being told at the end of the queue, "is that the condition seems to come with psychological problems: ADHD, ready addiction, timidity. And, of course, it's catching." Centaurs were created by shooting men with suitably enchanted arrows; merfolk were made by feeding people a magical seaweed; but men caught satyrism just by hanging around satyrs enough. Only adult men. Women, children, fays, merfolk, centaurs, etc. were immune.
Littlejohn continued: "It looks as though whoever created the spell wanted to make men more like typical male mammals, and wanted a propagating class of minions. They're easy to cow, easy to extract vows from. But the quality of work you get–"
"I am convinced, Alistair," interrupted Donovan, "that you know about satyrs. I want to know about Rollo's friend McCoy."
"Coy," said Vimont. "Just Coy. I've met him half a dozen times. In Avignon, Lyon, Calais. Always in France. Had no idea he was in England."
"And he caters with satyrs," Donovan rhymed.
"Well, yes. Gives the poor duffers employment and livens things up." Because the other thing about satyrs was that, given time or numbers, their company was arousing. Littlejohn would have got around to mentioning it soon.
"A traveling orgy service," Darcy summed up.
"Oh, that's a bit harsh!" Vimont protested.
"But only a bit?" Donovan poked back. "Ah, here we come."
Around the final bend, the path lay open to pasture land. Beyond that stood a low hill sprinkled with house lights. A bonfire already shone at the hill's foot. The glow outlined several figures, some of them (apparently) mounted.
"Right," said Littlejohn. "Glamour time." The centaurs pulled out their kerchiefs.
Further along the edge of the wood, Captain Fletcher and Lieutenant Sanders emerged from a less-trodden path. A squat, two-foot figure balanced easily on Fletcher's back, in miniature cavalry uniform: Eowyck, the base's chief stable brownie. "Thank you for the escort, sir," Fletcher said to him.
"No problem," said Eowyck. He hopped down. "The stallions gotta keep the colts in line. Was headed this way anyway." He sauntered into the weeds, in the direction of a copse in the middle of the pasture. There, the fays were having their own festival. Bonfire Night was even less to them than to the Grand Normans, but if their mortal clients were going to provide them with a flood of treats, why not have a party?
Fletcher and Sanders donned their glamour kerchiefs and started picking their way across the pasture, toward the bonfire. Sanders glanced at his captain and shook his head. "I never get used to you looking like that, sir," he said.
"I might say the same to you," Fletcher returned, looking over what appeared to be a lanky palomino bearing a tall, lean man with a pointed blond beard and a mustache surpassing the fairy Colonel's. Both faces, real human and unreal equine, looked grim. "Try to look a little more lighthearted, lad, or they'll think we're the military police."
"Yessir. But I might say the same to you, sir," Sanders echoed.
Both paced on, as dour as ever. Then Sanders asked, "What exactly did you see, sir?"
Fletcher sighed. This was not the first time Sanders had asked, and he had no better answer. "Not much. Darcy and Donovan trotting down the street, in the evening, in dress. Grinning and looking pleased with themselves. And I knew it was Bonfire Night. And Vimont may have been in the picture, or I may have just felt he was involved. I don't even know that there's trouble brewing."
Sanders snorted. "Your pardon, sir, but yes you do."
Fletcher sighed again. "I suppose I do." They were near enough to the bonfire to make out the faces of nearby people. So their faces were also visible. "Here we go. Try to look pleased to be here."
The first encounter was a couple from Ufham, known to them, so it was easy to put on a social smile. The man waved. The woman nodded. They flipped casual salutes.
"So do you want to see what the faunmaster has on offer?" Fletcher heard the woman ask.
"You know what he has on offer," her date replied. "No thanks. I'm just here to see you by firelight. I don't want outside help."
She laughed. "You don't want to risk growing..." But then she was out of earshot.
Fletcher looked to his lieutenant, who was already gazing at him. "That didn't take long," Sanders said.
Fletcher nodded. "Well. Let's scout about."
Ahead of them rose the slope of Wiffbourne Hill. It was not a hard climb—there were trails through the heather, and Fletcher himself had climbed it a time or two—but it was too steep to invite housing. The first houses were higher up, where it leveled off. It then sank gradually down to the main body of Wiffbourne.
The majority of Wiffbourne regarded the folk on the Hill as standoffish and eccentric. The folk on the Hill knew themselves to be Sundered, and knew that any eccentricity of theirs was as naught compared with the doings in Ufham, across the fields, on the other side of an unwelcoming wood, and served only by the most roundabout roads.
Here was an example of their standoffishness: instead of coming to the town bonfire, they made their own, at the foot of the Hill, out of sight of the rest of the town. It wasn't nearly as big.
But it was big enough, and it provided a rare occasion when the people on Wiffbourne Hill could mingle in a crowd with their guard down. They also got to exercise their curiosity about the folk from Ufham, especially those from the "riding academy."
The bonfire was the obvious point to investigate. As Fletcher and Sanders walked toward it, a group of figures came down the slope on their right. They paused, except for two, who moved on an intercept. "Well, well!" said one of the two. "Professor Fletcher, isn't it? You haven't been over here in—ha!—donkey's years."
"Thought it was time," Fletcher answered. "I hope I see you well, Mr. White." White was a little short, a little stout, and by now more than a little middle-aged. Fletcher remembered this more than saw it, in the dark. The bonfire was too far off to do more than outline the man. The other figure was taller, thinner, in a long coat instead of a jacket. Fletcher did not know who it was, but felt magic about them, multiplex, banked back, hard to read.
"Oh, I'm fine," said White, descending the last few feet to stand a couple of yards from Fletcher. He wobbled a little more than the terrain warranted, Fletcher thought, leading him to suspect White had been drinking. "How's the 'riding academy' doing?" he asked, then, before Fletcher could answer, said, "A lot of your folk over here this year. Come to ride herd on them?" Yes, the fellow was tipsy, and under the impression he was being funny or daring. He was also, Fletcher had long suspected, Receptant, like Fletcher himself. This fit with his good guess about 'riding herd.'
"I hope they haven't been any trouble since I was here last," said Fletcher, though he was sure he would have heard if they had been.
"No-no. Not even with that werewolf last year. Or that's what he said. Just a guy with a mess of dogs with him, to look at."
"Maybe. Something Italian."
"Our Master of Hounds, or his nephew. Both perfectly decent fellows. So no trouble. Good." White and his companion were both staring at Fletcher intently. White knew what Fletcher was, and so must the companion.
There was a pause, then White said, conspiratorially "Show us, will you?"
"But you've seen–"
"Oh, yeah, but not yet this year. And never you. And she's curious," he said, nodding toward the other. "It's safe. They're all at their own bonfire." He laughed. "Got our system. So you can ... show."
Fletcher hesitated. The request seemed silly, indecorous. White's delivery made it seem almost prurient. On the other hand, you could hardly complain of being asked to appear as you normally did, and there was a value to gratifying White; he was not the leader of Wiffbourne Hill—there was no leader—but he was prominent and a frequent contact for Ufham.
The companion ended the pause by breaking silence. "Please don't, if you'd rather not, Captain," she said, her voice firm and smooth. She did not sound tipsy, and she had recognized his insignia. "I did admit to being curious. I've never seen a centaur with my own eyes. And he's right: there are no unSundered about. But don't make yourself uncomfortable."
Fletcher gave a chuckle that was only slightly forced and said, "No problem." The knot on his kerchief untied without a hitch. He felt the spell die down and saw the faint horse-head image fade away before him. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Sanders rippling into his own form, too. "Captain Philip Fletcher, madam," he said, sweeping off his hat and bowing, one foreleg extended. He gestured toward Sanders, who was copying the bow. "And this is my lieutenant, Liam Sanders."
The woman stepped forward to shake hands. White, on the other hand, retreated. His dimly visible face looked alarmed. Why? Maybe it was seeing men and horses merge into centaurs when you weren't really sober.
The change of angle made the woman slightly more visible. A long, pale face under a deerstalker hat. She introduced herself as "Alexandra Delahaye. Thank you for indulging me."
"Not at all. You are Grand Norman?" he asked, on the strength of her recognition of his insignia.
"Yes, but I spend most of my time in cities."
"What brings you into the wilds of Berkshire?" Fletcher asked.
"I'm here to collect a debt."
"And I'm here to collect another beer," declared White. He faded further into the gloom.
Fletcher ignored him, thinking. He could feel that his question to Delahaye and her answer had something to do with the trouble that drew him here. Delahaye watched him. "From whom?" he asked.
She cocked her head. "It may be your business," she said in a tone of realization.
"Oh lord!" exclaimed Sanders. "Both of you! I'm surprised you don't just nod to each other and carry on without more talk."
"It doesn't work that way," they said in chorus, which did not improve Sanders's mood.
"In any case," said Fletcher, "yes, I think it may be my business. Are you collecting from a young man recently enlisted in the cavalry?"
"No, from a faunmaster."
"'Ah'? Well, since it's your business, come see. He's set up on the other side of the fire."
They picked their way through the dark, trailed by Sanders, who watched them for signs of telepathic communication and wondered what that would look like.
"I am a spellbroker," Delahaye explained to Fletcher, meaning she was a dealer in transferable magic.
"Does he owe you a vow?" Fletcher asked. He hoped the debt wasn't a wish; wishes could go off like bombs.
"No, just raw vis, sheer energy. But rather a lot of it. He's borrowed more and more, paid tiny amounts back, always in money, bought extensions with more money... Finally, three years ago, I said enough and got him to swear to a final payoff. Tonight."
"And you are here to collect?"
"I am here to make sure. The vow will do the collecting, but I don't trust him not to work against that."
Sanders paced behind his captain and the spellbroker, looking at their very different silhouettes against the lights of the fire. A cloud of sparks swirled over it, outlining the two heads, appearing to swarm about them, like thoughts dancing back and forth. Only they were just talking. Sanders kept an eye on the fire, though, more or less for something to do. Even he, mundane as he was (for a mythical beast), could feel the weight of spells on this lady. Might she play tricks with the fire? Or the shadows? Or the Guy that must be around somewhere?
They rounded the fire. A row of tables came in view, laden with bottles and glasses and urns. As for food, slender figures with trays whirled about, half dancing. One came up the slope to them, revolving to a baroque flute from a bank of speakers under the tables. He halted before Fletcher and Delahaye, presenting a tray of canapés. He was flame-colored in the firelight, smiling and nude.
Fletcher took in the identifiers: black, finger-sized horns; pointed and mobile ears; the lift of the horse tail behind in counterpoint to the lift before. Fletcher glanced at Delahaye's face, saw the expression of distaste, and took a small step ahead of her. "No, thank you," he said firmly.
The satyr held his place and his professional smile. "Free tonight," he said. "No ticket needed or anything."
Fletcher shook his head and waved him away. "Doesn't spend much on wardrobe, your debtor," Fletcher muttered.
"It's expected," Delahaye replied. "Part of the show. The service."
"I wouldn't think it was expected in a Berkshire village."
His show was wasted in this village, brooded Coy as he worked—smiling, mixing the more complex drinks, bantering with customers, quarter-listening to his earbud for reports from the lookouts, keeping an eye on the supplies for the table and trays, keeping an eye on everybody, and, always, smiling. A small crowd, half of them just goggling at the satyrs. Too English, even the Grand Normans, really. Not going to relax and enjoy it, like their French or Italian counterparts. Catch him working in Britain again.
He did not want to be here. He was moving up in the world, not down. Look at the gigs he'd had lately: those Spanish Tantrics, that rake-helly chieftess from the Irish Empire, that nymph-queen with her big boat off Cypress, the demi-djinn who said he wanted them back, that millionaire who said he was an alchemist—well, yes, he was probably a ghost-dealer, but he paid really well. A few more like those and he would have it made and be free of debt.
Instead, here he was, doing a gig for free just to soften up Vimont. Not that Vimont was tough. Maybe he should have just asked up front, but he had to take every advantage, give him the party, point him at Deirdre, ask nicely—beg nicely. How far could he push Deirdre? Probably not much further.
Corno's voice abruptly growled from the earbud: "Delahaye is here."
"Edge of the crowd. Next to an old centaur."
Coy spotted her. "Fine." It really made no difference. The vow didn't care if she was there or not. And she couldn't absolve him of it, not that she would.
"Huh," Corno grunted in his ear. "Vimont. That's Vimont. Across the fire. Can you see him?"
Coy could, just. He smiled for real, if only on one side, at Corno's grunt of surprise. Corno did not often express any emotion. "Changed a lot, isn't he? Big sucker, now."
"They're all big."
Usually, there was no point asking Corno personal questions, but tonight was special; Coy felt like needling a little more reaction out of him. "Would you trade?"
Silence. But of course he would. Even without the youth, the wealth, the title, it was a better class of monster.
Fletcher's students and their companions approached the bonfire, leaving the dark pasture behind. "And there they are," said Donovan, waving at the satyrs. "In their working clothes."
Vimont chuckled. "Well, if they can show themselves, so can we." He pulled off his kerchief and melted back together.
The other "mounted men" exchanged glances. "He has the right of it," said Littlejohn and followed suit. There was a cheer from the Wiffbourne Hill people. Littlejohn shied. Vimont smiled and waved, and, after a bit, the other centaurs did too.
Vimont walked into the thin crowd between the tables and the bonfire, wading through the bipeds. A satyr pranced up to him and present a tray. Vimont took a canapé with an absent nod and looked about for Deirdre.
"He looks very much at home," Littlejohn remarked, regarding Vimont and sounding more than usually Scottish and distinctly Presbyterian. "Is that what havin' a title teaches ye?"
His wife gave a little tug on his jacket straps, in lieu of reining him in, and nudged his left flank. Littlejohn turned and saw the Honorable Bennet Darcy glowering back. "Sorry, Ben," said Littlejohn at once. "I over-generalized."
Darcy relaxed and nodded, then sighed and admitted, "He does look at home, though."
Coy's buffet tables lay on the far side of the bonfire from the hill. Between the tables and the fire, several populations mingled. There were the satyrs, of course, and then there were the people they were serving: several couples with wary grins, and a handful of singles. Some were waltzing and one pair was attempting a tango, though the flute music did not suit either dance. Outside their area were more people, looking on, hesitantly accepting hors d'oeuvres from time to time, looking embarrassed but unable to look away. Beyond them were the people who did look away, including everyone with children. They were leaving for the other side of the bonfire, or had their backs to such goings-on, their faces to the bonfire, obviously set on having a nice, traditional, family-friendly burning in effigy.
Vimont was in the inmost crowd, the only centaur, still smiling, apparently fielding questions and remarks, but obviously looking around. Suddenly, there was someone on his back.
She clapped her hands over his eyes and gave the classic command: "Guess who!"
Back among the onlookers, watching from her husband's back, Karla Littlejohn asked, "Who's that?"
"Nadine," said Corliss, a bit wearily.
"Works at the base store?" Karla asked.
"Yes. One of Vimont's regulars."
Out in the crowd, "Nadine!" Vimont exclaimed cheerfully. But... Deirdre? Well, Nadine was here and Deirdre was not. "When did you get here?"
"A few minutes before you, I guess. Did you–?"
Vimont took her hands from his eyes, and held them out to either side. Then he began dancing, or at least stepping and swaying to the music. There was some laughter and an acceleration of chatter in the crowd.
"Are the satyrs gettin' to him, d'ye think?" Donovan asked.
Littlejohn shook his head. "The arousal effect only works on men-simple. Same as the transformation. In fact, it's the edge, the outskirts of the transformation. O' course, there's placebo effect."
"Cut the guy some slack," said Karla. "A girl hops on his back, there's music, he dances with her. Simple. Looks like fun, really."
Fletcher watched the Littlejohns join Vimont and Nadine among the dancers, followed by the other mixed-species couple from their group. Donovan came next, zeroed in on a single young woman, and gave her a bow such as Fletcher had given Delahaye. In a few seconds, she was on his back, holding his hands. It all looked quite charming, even decorous, but for the satyrs. He wondered if he should be worried.
"Quite a show," Delehaye said.
"Just as well there are only Sundered to see it," Fletcher replied. He then realized his worry had motivated the remark. "That's still true, isn't it?" he asked Delahaye.
She cocked her head and looked thoughtful.
At that point, the flute music resolved and the Russian dance from the Nutcracker Suite started. In time with it, three satyrs sprang out of the shadows, as unclad as the waiters, playing on pan-pipes or miming it.
This, naturally, broke Delahaye's concentration. Soon, she had a second distraction. "Dammit, where's Coy gone?"
"The faunmaster?" asked Fletcher.
"The bartender?" asked Sanders, who had been watching the scene and noticed Coy's departure.
"Yes, to both. He was there when your boys started playing carousel ponies." She locked eyes with Fletcher in a brief glare, clearly wondering if he was colluding with Coy. He met her stare coldly. She grunted, satisfied, and broke off to look around for Coy.
"I knew you could do that sort of thing," Sanders muttered.
"The trick I need," Delahaye said, "is to dowse for the little git, if he hasn't got a ward up." She fumbled in her coat pockets and produced a small L-shaped stick.
"No, never mind, he's back" said Sanders, pointing. "There." They saw Coy picking his way through the crowd, apparently returning from the other side of the bonfire. One of the satyrs was with him—a gray-haired, ram-horned specimen—and they were escorting a young woman. She was willowy, with dark hair and pale skin that made Fletcher think of the "Black Irish"—in that way, though no other, like Bennet Darcy—wrapped in a long orange coat that blazed in the firelight and looked expensive. She and Coy laughed and smiled.
Corno had found Deirdre on the other, respectable side of the bonfire. (He dented the respectability somewhat by his presence, but the friendly dark made it easy to minimize notice.) She had assured Coy she would be at Wiffbourne Hill, and so she was. She was chatting with a local at the moment, asking general questions about Bonfire Night, an unfamiliar holiday for someone Franco-Irish. Corno waited for the local to turn away, then cleared his throat politely. "Mademoiselle?" He had, after all, last seen her in Avignon.
Deirdre turned and studied him: gray hair, shaggy white beard, his face framed in curling ram's horns, the resemblance to a ram enhanced by the wooly shoulders, chest, and belly. He kept the rest hidden in shadow. "Corno, isn't it?" she asked.
Nice girl, to remember a servant's name. "Yes, mademoiselle. Shall I tell Mr. Coy you are here? He will want to come meet you." He raised the phone.
"Oh, sure. So, they tell me the bonfire is for burning a scarecrow. Is there anything else to it?"
"I have never been to one before, mademoiselle, but I think the rest is mostly snacking and gossiping. I have heard baked potatoes often feature. At big ones, there are fireworks. Excuse me." He texted WITH HER and hit SEND. "Of course," he continued, "Mr. Coy has made more elaborate arrangements." He saw two figures approaching, not yet visible to Deirdre's human eyes, and withdrew into deeper shadow.
"Corno?" she asked, peering after him.
The pair was a middle-aged couple. "Was that thing bothering you, miss?" the husband asked.
"Oh, no," Deirdre answered. "Don't worry. He's just with the caterer."
The man grunted. His wife said coldly, "No one around here asked for a caterer. Certainly not one like that."
Deirdre blinked. "You're sure?"
"Quite sure. We've been asking around."
"That is odd," Deirdre agreed. "I'll ask when I see him."
The couple looked her up and down doubtfully—certainly an outsider to Wiffbourne and not even dressed like the usual outsiders from Ufham, she could well be part of the problem. They nodded and retreated into the gloom.
Corno came forward again. "If I may escort you?" he asked. This was tricky in such a place. He could not offer his arm. A naked old beast-man walking off with a sweet young thing? No. Pants would have been good, but Coy had said no, a papposilenos was part of the show. So he led her, picking through dark, unfamiliar grounds, choosing shadows to make sure she saw him and no one else did. "We have set up the tables on the other side of the fire," he added as a helpful hint. He hoped she didn't trip. Having her fall would be bad. Catching her could also be bad.
"Ah! Mlle. Burke-Marleau! So happy to see you!" And here was Coy. Why leave the table unattended, Crono wondered briefly, then answered himself: nerves.
"Sure!" returned Deirdre vaguely, with a weak smile.
He took her arm and reversed course, back to the tables, leaving Corno to trail after in safe obscurity. "Having fun?" he asked.
"I suppose. It's nice of you to forgive the payment." Deirdre's father owed Coy for a party. Coy had waived this in return for Deirdre's attendance tonight. "It does seem odd, to take payment for catering one party by inviting me to another. We are square now? Now that I'm here?"
"Very soon. And I think you'll have a splendid time. I just have a favor to ask. I said Rollo Vimont is here, you recall?"
"Sure. But isn't he... Didn't he just join the Grand Norman cavalry?"
"That's right. The base is in the next village over." They were between the fire and the hill now. He waved toward the blaze, beyond which lay the field, the wood, and Ufham.
"Their centaur cavalry? So he's ... changed?"
Coy scented trouble. "Yes. I've seen him. Looks amazing! Bursting with vigor! Being half horse seems to agree with him. Would love to give you a ride, I'm sure." By the firelight, he saw the alarm in her face. "Only if you want, of course."
"Right. Wh–what's the favor?"
"Just be nice to him. Show him a good time. Be his date for the night. Easy. I mean, the two of you did rather light up Avignon the summer before last."
"But then he was ... a man."
Coy snorted silently. Vimont had been eighteen, absurdly funded, and without visible responsibilities. Not Coy's idea of adulthood, but no doubt Deirdre had a different perspective.
This wasn't going well at all. Bleeding hell! The girl was fine around the satyrs, who were surely much more upsetting to the delicate or the conventional. What was different? Sheer size? Oh, but she had always known the satyrs as satyrs, never as men, and none had been lovers. Vimont was last summer's romance; she had known him very well, if not very long. It must be the change that squicked her out, the prince-to-frog thing, the degeneration. Well, he could certainly relate. He should have thought of it earlier. Was he wasting the price of her dad's party? Nothing for it now.
He selected a calm, reassuring smile and said, "Oh, he's still the same Rollo, really. Just more legs. All I ask is that you smile and act pleased to see him."
Her lovely brow puckered. "Well... Why? What's going on?"
Coy sighed and decided to be candid. That could be very disarming. "I need a favor from him. I need to ask him for money."
She looked at him, clear and direct. "So I'm a sweetener?"
He smiled gamely. "The best I could think of. It's not like you get nothing from this. And I do hope you'll enjoy the night."
"Right. For you to forgive the price of that party, you must want a lot of money from Rollo."
Ah, yes, her family were Esoteric Cartesians and owed their fortune to their mathematical scryings. "Yes," he admitted. "I do."
Her brow puckered again. "Poor Rollo. Why did he do it?"
"My guess is that his dad didn't want him inheriting the barony. I don't know any details. Grand Norman law: you have to be human to inherit. I suppose they don't want to chance a literal jackass on the throne."
She laughed, so he laughed back. They were at the tables, now. The dancers included centaurs with girls on their backs. Looked good. He waited for Deirdre to notice, watching for her reaction. Oh, damn! One of the prancing ponies was Vimont!— Would that girl on his back be another complication?
Delahaye relaxed again, with her quarry back in sight. Fletcher tried to relax too, to see if his Receptance would let him. "So," he asked conversationally, "how do you think Mr. Coy avoids turning into a satyr himself? After all, it appears that he works around them all the time."
If Fletcher was trying to relax, Sanders was not. He peered into the dusk, wishing he had been one of those fellows who got equine night vision, trying to make out the movements of the people beyond the firelight. He scanned the lit part of the crowd, especially the faces of folk who resented these ribald, uninvited intruders. He eyed the sparks coming off the top of the bonfire. Ever since he had seen Fletcher and Delahaye outlined against them, he had felt they were not quite natural. Now, they were forming a sparkling little tornado above the flames. He supposed that might be natural.
Delahaye nodded at Fletcher's question. "Good point. I've wondered, sometimes. Maybe he has turned. Keeps his pants on, had his horns polled. His hair hides his ears; failing that, there's such a thing as plastic surgery. But I don't really think so. He has too good a grip on himself. I don't know. Maybe he sends–"
"Sir?" interrupted Sanders. He pointed up the hill and was rewarded with an exclamation of "Ah!" from Fletcher, who sounded satisfied. Sanders knew that "ah": some Receptant expectation had been fulfilled.
A small group was coming down the hill toward them. As they neared the light, Fletcher made out White, now looking upset and sober, three people he did not know, and one of the satyrs. One of the three unknowns, a big man, gripped the satyr by one shoulder and one spike-like horn. This left the satyr to stumble along with his head crooked down, tripping over rocks and heather.
The two remaining people in the group were a man and a woman. They were arguing with White and the satyr-wrangler, but paused when they reached Fletcher, Sanders, and Delahaye. The man demanded of Fletcher, "Is this creature anything to do with you lot?"
"No," Fletcher answered firmly. "I knew nothing about him or his lot until a few minutes ago. What's the problem?"
"He's here, running around naked, is the problem," the woman said. "There are children here!" She glared at the satyr, who cringed. His mobile ears went down, his tufted tail tucked between his knees, but his erection, even in this situation, did not waver.
"Moreover," said the big man, "he's fair to bringing the Sundering down on us. He got seen, up the hill, and now rumor has it there's indecent exposure going on at our bonfire."
"Which there is," the other man growled.
"So," said the big man, "Fred and Bob are coming over here to see what's what, as they shouldn't."
"Fred and Bob," White explained, "are the other two constables. They're not Sundered. This here is Constable Gill, William Gill, Bill Gill, and of course he is. Sundered."
"And you are–?" Fletcher asked the satyr.
"Georgie. Sir," the satyr answered, rolling his eyes to Fletcher, his head being immobilized by Constable Gill.
"Well, Georgie, what were you doing up the hill? In the altogether? Surely you know you can't go around ordinary neighborhoods like that? It can't be that long you've been a satyr."
"'That long'?" echoed Gill.
"A handful of years ago, he was human."
"Six," whispered Georgie. "Seven soon. I changed on New Year's Eve." Then more loudly, defensively, "I was already stripped for the show when the boss told me to do lookout duty. A lot of lookouts, this time. Then he gets nervous and tells me to look for a girl."
The woman snorted. The men growled.
"No! A particular girl! A guest. Deirdre Burke-Marleau. Showed me a picture."
"Well, you can stop looking," the woman said. "She got found by another one of you." She glanced past the fire, to where Deirdre stood next to Coy, staring at the dancers.
"About the other two cops?" said Delahaye.
"There's them and a pack of curious, on their way over," said Gill. "Normally, it wouldn't matter. Nothing to see but us, and a few of you–" A nod to Fletcher and Sanders. "–all glamoured up, and everyone with stories ready. But nothing like him." And he shook Georgie's horn for emphasis.
"Glamoured," repeated Fletcher. "Right." He reached out and seized Georgie's other horn. Gill stared up at Fletcher and held on, leaving Georgie in the role of wishbone. "Give him over, please. I've a job for him." Gill surrendered his prey.
Fletcher turned Georgie to face the dancers. "Go down there right now and tell every centaur that Fletcher says on with the glamour. Quick." He let go the horn and gave Georgie an encouraging shove between the shoulder blades. The satyr dashed off, down the remaining slope, past the fire, to the tables, where he apparently blurted something to Coy, then into the crowd.
"Used to be human?" asked White.
"Yes," said Fletcher, pulling out his own kerchief. "It's catching. But one night isn't enough exposure. No one's changing tonight." Then he looked up, into the dark.
"Captain," said Sanders as their illusions melted over them, "look at the fire. Above it. The sparks."
"Yes," said Fletcher. "A spark tornado. But that could be natural, surely?"
"Yes, but it's been coming and going ever since we got here. I think someone's playing with it."
"Maybe they're enjoying themselves. I thought I heard a laugh just now."
Bill Donovan had not been a great dancer with only two legs. Another two just added to the confusion, and the music didn't have a very solid rhythm, but he was trying, more crow-hopping than anything else. However, the girl on his back—Jane? Jen?—was laughing, so things were working. Then, abruptly, there was a satyr in front of him.
"Fletcher says put on the glamour," he said, then dashed over to Darcy.
"Whoops!" said Donovan. "Time for the costume ball. (Didn't know Fletcher was here.)"
"What's happening?" asked Jane/Jen.
"Mondain-minors coming, I suppose. UnSundered." He tied on the kerchief and saw the dim outline of the horse head appear before him.
"Weird!" exclaimed the girl.
"How does it look to you?" Donovan asked.
"Multiple exposure! There's a copy of you in front of me. Transparent. And you look transparent too. That is, your human part."
"Huh." He glanced at Darcy, then at Vimont. "Looks clearer from outside. You'd better get off, though. Judging by my friends and their ladies, you're reachin' through my rider to the straps on my jacket. The invisible jacket worn by invisible me." He noted Vimont kneeling for Nadine's convenience. Good idea. He quickly did the same for ... Janice, that was it.
Meanwhile, the background music had hiccuped: the Nutcracker Suite had been interrupted by the opening run from Mozart's Magic Flute, then resumed. This was clearly a signal for the satyrs to dash away, either into the darkness or up to the table. The latter returned from the table in artfully ragged forest-green shorts and artificial ivy garlands. The garlands would either hide their horns or make it look like the horns were part of a headdress. Their tails, apparently, were just rammed into the pants. It looked quite uncomfortable to Donovan, who switched his own tail in sympathy.
"They have a system down," said Ben Darcy, who now stood beside him.
"Indeed," Donovan answered his friend. "And the luck of the Sundering in carrying it off. With no expensive glamour."
"Well-trained minions," said, Littlejohn, showing up on the other side of Donovan, his wife afoot beside him.
Donovan liked to poke at Littlejohn when he got to sounding judgmental that way. "Well, but aren't we minions, too, Alistair?"
"We are free servants of the king," Littlejohn retorted, "and gave our oaths freely." He waved at a dancing satyr. "I wonder how freely he gave his service oath to Coy there."
Donovan nodded, but glanced over at Corliss, who was leaning down to the girl who'd just dismounted him, smiling as he apologized for the end of the dance—Corliss, who enlisted to satisfy a vengeful goblin. How free had he been?
Then there was Vimont. He certainly thought he was free, but Ben Darcy had spotted a rejected heir on their first day, and Rollo had since repeated enough of the sweet-talk Vimont père had used to persuade his son of the "fun" life of a man-horse sent off to explore the edges of creation.
Ah, but Donovan himself had thought that would be fun; he'd just decided on his own. Well, together with his foster-brother Ben.
Donovan watched Vimont, abandoned now by Nadine, over at the tables, talking to Coy and a tall girl in an orange coat. Nobody looked happy. Vimont was smiling but it was a worried smile. Donovan caught Darcy's eye and they started over at a trot.
Coy stood behind a frozen smile, wracking his brain for a way to save the situation. Right after the little joke about royal jackasses, Deirdre had turned and stared into the swirl of dancers. And among them, conspicuous at a thousand pounds each, were half a dozen centaurs, each with a girl on his back, and one of them was Vimont.
Her little social laugh died, forgotten. Born of a Sundered family, Deirdre had known all her life that centaurs could be real, had heard in due course that Grand Normandy had a cavalry of them, made from men who volunteered to be transformed. It had been one of many curious facts off in the background. One wondered, in passing, why anyone would do that.
Then Rollo had done it. Gossip had passed the news to her. She had not known how to take it. If he had died, or married, or become a monk, or lost a leg, she would have had some idea how to react. Not with this. She had been glad the summer romance was over and had tried not to think about him. Then Coy had made his offer, she had accepted to help her family, and then had learned Rollo would be there. Confusion had reigned in her breast, pushed back as often as possible, but it was possible no longer.
Here she was, looking at centaurs, live, for the first time in her life, and Rollo was one of them. Somewhere. She did not see him immediately. Her eye lit on a big red one, holding the hands of the girl on his back. Both were smiling, but she did not register that. It was the confusion that struck her.
Before, Deirdre had not thought much about centaurs. In the visual arts, the human part was usually an athletic, bare-chested young man, which was agreeable enough. As to the equine part, she was not one of those girls fascinated by horses. Horses were just part of the inventory of the world: expensive, archaic, rather intimidatingly big.
Now, harassed by her nerves, her eye could not sort out man and horse combined. Waist was neck. The creature was simultaneously prone and erect. The man's legs were the horse's forelegs, which ought to be like arms, but were still the man's legs. Right here, right now, it made no sense. It was unnatural. Monstrous.
And there was Rollo. Even as she knew it was an error, a flicker of her mind tried to see him as riding a horse. The flicker failed. He was smiling out of the same bodily confusion. The smiling made it worse. While a part of her mind tried to say it was good he was happy that way, another, less articulate part said dismay was the right reaction to being rendered monstrous. Not being dismayed just made things worse. To be happy to be that?
At least he had not seen her. Not yet. There were these few seconds of respite.
Coy watched her, saw her gaze lock on Vimont. Silently, he cursed her and himself. He had never imagined she would react this way. He had imagined her finding the whole thing funny, laughing at Vimont, teasing him for the big, new, awkward shape. And, in that image, Vimont was grinning back because that's what Vimont always did in the presence of a laughing girl. Vimont would be happy, expansive, eager to please, an easy touch. But she wasn't laughing, and wouldn't.
And now Vimont had seen her.
"Please," Coy growled from behind the smile that was now a grimace, "just be nice to him."
Suddenly Georgie was in front of them. "Mundanes coming, boss!" he gasped, and dashed off. (See? A satyr, naked and ithyphallic, didn't bother her at all. Why did she have to squick out over Vimont?) Where had Georgie dashed off to? Ah, he was warning the centaurs. Fine. It even gave a few seconds' time while Vimont slipped on his glamour kerchief.
Coy was almost relieved to turn to a familiar problem with a set solution. He spliced the Magic Flute warning trill into the sound track. The boys ran, either off into the dark or up to the table, to snatch shorts and garlands from underneath. And now, here came Vimont. Nicely glamoured, at least.
The glamour didn't help. Deirdre already knew what lay under it. Anyway, she could see under it; an expensive fairy eye-ointment, applied in infancy, had guaranteed that. She saw both reality and illusion, and could attend to either, like a person gazing through a telescope with both eyes open. Just now, she barely noticed the glamour and immediately dismissed it.
The tables were between them, but he skirted them. "Deirdre!" he cried cheerily. "I'm so happy to see you!"
Happy. He was happy this way. Please be nice to him. The fragment of him that was still the solid, vigorous body she remembered. "Oh, Rollo!" she burst out, "I'm so sorry!"
The smile flickered. He looked confused, then smiled again. "Sorry? There's nothing to be sorry about!" And he came looming up and spread his arms.
Much later, she remembered that hugs had been something of a speciality of his. He liked giving them and was good at them. And it had indeed been very pleasant to linger in his embrace, in such slight coolness as offered by southern France on a summer night, when you were clad lightly, if at all. But there and then, a monster was going to seize her. She bolted out into the dark.
"Deirdre!" Vimont lunged after her. He got two strides into a gallop, only to collide solidly with Donovan's horse shoulder. "Deirdre!" he yelled again and lunged again, but Donovan blocked him again and grabbed one of the straps on the back of his jacket. "Dammit, Bill!" Vimont exclaimed, rearing to threaten with forehoof and fist.
Donovan pulled sharply down on the jacket strap, checking the rear. "What are you going to do?" he demanded.
"Go after her!"
"Talk to her!"
"And what'll she do?" Donovan asked.
"How should I know?"
"What did she do when you talked to her just now? She ran away. Do you have anything different to say to her this time?"
Vimont opened and shut his mouth. Donovan felt the fight go out of him. "But what's wrong?" Vimont nearly wailed. "It's Deirdre! We spent months together in Avignon, summer before last. We were lovers!"
"Were you a horse then? Had she ever seen a centaur that wasn't a picture or a statue?"
Donovan kept his grip on the jacket strap and led Vimont away from the tables, the fire, and the direction of Deirdre's retreat. Coy, he noticed, was trailing after them.
"Fletcher said this would be an educational opportunity," Donovan told Vimont, "and by Martin's spurs, he was right. The one thing he couldn't teach us in Ufham, with centaurs on every street corner, is that we're bloody weird. We're monsters. You're a monster. You freak her out, man. She's scared of you."
"But I wouldn't hurt her!"
"A grass snake can't hurt you, but thousands of people are scared of 'em. Don't scare her again!" He wheeled to Coy. "What do you want?"
Coy had decided that, once more, honesty was the best policy, indeed the only possible policy. "Mr. Vimont, I'm terribly sorry! I arranged for Deirdre to be here—for this entire event—to make a good setting for asking you a favor." What a waste! What a total waste of effort and money and, above all, time!
"How much?" growled Donovan.
"But what about Deirdre?" asked Vimont, and he looked back to the buffet table where he had last seen her. "Where's she got to? Is she all right?"
"She'll be fine," Donovan said, hoping he was right. "I saw Ben nip off after her." Vimont kept on staring, with a doubtful expression. He was perfectly justified in that, Donovan reflected, since Ben Darcy was exactly as monstrous as Vimont or himself. But, he told himself, his foster-brother was a clever one. "How much?" he asked again.
Coy squared his shoulders and named a figure.
Donovan raised his eyebrows. "Pounds or euros?" he asked.
Coy stared into the dark. "Nights," he said.
Ben Darcy trotted through the dark. He would have been heartened to know of his foster-brother's confidence in him, but would have worried about living up to it. He was painfully aware of his dilemma: how to guard someone fleeing a centaur when you were a centaur yourself. Should he call out to her from a distance? And then what? And he was losing sight of her. That brilliant orange coat helped, but it wasn't like it glowed.
There was no great danger to Deirdre in just rushing about a pasture in the dark, but as best he could judge, she was headed in the general direction of the copse where the fays held their own revel. He could run ahead of her (if he could keep sight of her) and shout back at her. Then she'd run up to him and...?
Academic now. He had lost sight of her. But he was overtaking another figure, that old satyr, chugging along, far slower than a panicky young woman. He formed a plan.
Bill's Uncle Evan had told them about running mounts and dismounts. Theoretically, Ben could snatch up the old satyr and swing him onto his back. But neither Ben nor the satyr had any practice at this, the satyr knew nothing of Ben's idea, and he might well be unwilling. So Ben just came thundering up to him. The satyr turned, glanced, and started to veer, but Ben grabbed an upper arm and did his best to keep galloping.
"No!" the satyr shouted. "The girl! Mustn't get lost!"
"I know!" Ben shouted back. "Can you see her?"
The satyr, leaping and stumbling from Ben's assist (or capture), pointed with his free hand. Ben followed the course change. In a few seconds, he saw a pale vertical stroke. In a few seconds more, he saw a cluster of dim lights. The girl and, far too close, lights in the fairy copse.
"On three!" he told the satyr, counted down, and released him a few yards ahead of Deirdre. He galloped on.
The lights in the copse were like masses of firefly glimmers, too faint to be noticed by humans blinded by a bonfire, beautiful and, right now, fearsome.
Ben stumbled to a halt, halfway up his forelegs in the bracken at the edge of the copse. He tried to call out over his panting: "Re– hee– tuh– Re– hee–" He sounded like he was braying. He gave himself over to just breathing for three gasps, then managed, "Return and we return!" There was still a lot of wheeze to it.
He hoped for the customary "Keep faith and so do we." Instead, the lemon-lime glimmers went out. A cold voice drawled, "You are not invited, pony-boy." Bad. A light from nowhere unfolded from the dark, a bit greener than the lightning-bug flickers, the exact color of cat eye-shine. It illuminated the Colonel, as Ben had seen him not long before, in Ufham Wood, but he was not smiling and a feline tail switched behind him.
"I know, sir. Your pardon, sir," Ben gasped, catching up on his panting. "It's just– There's a girl lost out there. She might see you. See your lights and come. Not Grand Norman. She means no harm. No disrespect. Please. If she comes– Please don't– Take it ill."
"If she's nothing to do with the Pact," said the Colonel, "we'll do as we choose. You have no say in it."
"I know. I just beg. Sir. Please."
Another glow opened in the night, and a third. These were a little bluer, paler, the color of the light in a horse's eye. They robed much smaller figures. One was squat, in cavalry uniform. "Cool off, pussy," said Eowyck to the Colonel. "He's showing manners, so you can too. He's Fletcher's, and I'll not have the peace between us troubled."
The other light contained a figure just as short but much slighter, the squirrel-man from the livery stable. "Relax, colt," he told Ben, pointing back toward the hill. "She's going back with the horny man."
Ben nodded and start to back away. "Thank you. My apologies."
The Colonel gave Eowyck a withering look, which bounced off, then rolled his eyes and turned away. "Just mind your own business," he said to Ben over his shoulder as he quenched his cat-light and vanished.
The squirrel-groom smiled at him and waved. He and his light faded out.
Eowyck told him, "Go back to your own party, colt."
"Yessir." As he backed further and wheeled to go, he saw the brownie's aureole wink out and the firefly lights blossom again in the trees.
He set off at a trembling trot. Was throwing satyrs at a young woman the best way to rescue her? Well, you used what came to hand.
"He's Fletcher's." Interesting.
Fletcher gazed down at Fred and Bob, the unSundered constables, two bulky shadows, not quite as tall as the Sundered Bill Gill. In turn, they thought they were regarding him; they peered up at a point behind his head, where the glamour had the human Fletcher apparently riding the horse Fletcher. He had just given them his full name and his address in Ufham.
"And you are a teacher at the riding academy there?" asked Fred. He was the one actually in uniform tonight, and maybe he felt he needed to live up to it and be officious.
"And you, too, sir?" he asked Sanders.
"Mm? Oh, yes, right." Sanders glanced down as he spoke, then up again to the column of sparks above the fire. He had spotted one spark that lingered.
"Always come over here for Bonfire Night?"
"No," said Fletcher. "Maybe one year in three or four."
"And you've never seen these dancers here before?"
"I've never seen them before at all."
"Have you ever– Sir, would you mind dismounting?" Fred rubbed the back of his neck.
Fletcher sighed and put a weary, decrepit creak into his voice as he said, "Lad, you don't know the shenanigans it took to get me up here. Removing me from this horse here–" He clapped his equine shoulder and the image did the same, angles intelligently adjusted. "–would be undignified and painful in the extreme." Not to mention fatal.
"There y'go, Fred," muttered Bob. "Been a while since either of us was called 'lad.'" They were in their late forties.
Bill broke in: "They've nothing to do with the matter, Fred. A few of these folk come by every year, as you'd know if you ever bothered to come over here on a Bonfire Night." Fletcher admired the trick by which Bill put the onus on his unSundered colleagues.
"Well, well," said Fletcher in peace-making tones, "at least there's no indecent exposure going on, though you can see how the rumor got started, with those idiots prancing around in just shorts. I know young people don't feel the cold–" Again with the elderly creak. "–but how they can stand it I don't understand." Another trick to divert the unSundered: side with normality against the oddness.
"What we need to be looking into," offered Bill, "is licensing on the beer and wine going down out there."
"The person you want," put in Delahaye, "is Bart Coy. He's their boss. It's his catering service."
"And what's your connection to him, ma'am?" Fred asked.
"He owes me money. I've only been able to track him down tonight."
"Ah." Fred found nothing strange here. "Any idea why he'd show up here?"
She shrugged. "Maybe he wants to touch one of Professor Fletcher's students for the money he owes me. Some of them must be well off." Fletcher gave her a look, which she either ignored or did not see in the dark. It was all well and good to unload the cops on this Coy person, but he didn't appreciate her drawing more attention to his lads.
"And you are–?" Fred asked her.
"Alexandra Delahaye." She gave him a London address and produced a driver's license. "That's Coy," she added helpfully, pointing, "talking to those two young men on horseback." Fletcher saw Coy talking with Donovan and Vimont, the three barely visible on the far side of the fire, at the edge of the light.
"Right," said Fred. "Thanks. C'mon, Bob, Bill." He started to lead the charge. "Oh, and please stick around for a bit, ma'am."
"No fear. As I said, he owes me money."
Once the constables were well away and the irate locals had withdrawn, Sanders cleared his throat and pointed. "Sir, there's a spark up there, or something. But too big and too dim, and it just hangs about."
Fletcher followed Sanders's finger but could pick out nothing. He kept trying, though, and finally saw something flicker and flutter, dithering above them, between them and the fire. He lost it just as it started to descend.
Then it was back, about three meters above their heads, bobbing about in jinks and jerks, then gone again.
There it was again, a moth, or even a butterfly, jigging about in a loose hover an arm's length away. On a November night? "Sir–" Sanders began.
"Well met by firelight. You are, I think, another creditor, madam?" The voice was a light, relaxed tenor, coming from the insect. "And are these augmented gentlemen your manservants? No, I see they are servants of the Grand Norman king."
With a tiny hesitation that he hoped no one noticed, especially the insect, Fletcher brought his arm up and extended an open palm. The "butterfly" landed on it, the touch barely perceptible. "Quite right, little lord," Fletcher answered. "A creditor?"
"Yes, Captain. Not, as you might first think, drawn to the flame." A wing flicked toward the bonfire. There was a smirk in the voice. Fletcher studied the thing on his palm Its wings were patched in brown, orange, black, and white, and it wore them like a cloak, standing upright as no natural butterfly ever did. The voice simply came out of the air; there were no moving lips (or any lips), no other motion. All done by magic.
Short of eat and breathe, such fays did everything by magic—even think, there being no brain to speak of in such tiny bodies. You didn't meet them often, and then either simple, child-like ones or fully mature ones. Fletcher had heard a theory that the Sundering kept the middle ranks away from Earth entirely: the babies (larvae?) could be unheedingly herded by luck and the real adults knew better than to buck the system. (Maybe, said another theory, it was the adults who kept the troublesome teens away. Yet another theory said they spent their adolescence in other shapes.) And the mature ones, doing everything by magic, were all formidable wizards.
The wizard in his hand stood about as high as his thumbnail was long. He could make out neither mandibles nor coiled tongue in the dim light, but two multicolored eyes, like opals the size of sesame seeds, glowed in the firelight and stared back at him.
"Return and we return," Fletcher said hopefully.
But the creature, instead of saying, "Keep faith and so do we," answered, "I am not in your Pact, Captain, but I appreciate the courtesy. Are you a creditor too? No, I think not, but you have some interest here beyond an evening revel, I believe."
"I think so. Your debtor, Mr. Coy, is meddling with one of my students, I suspect. Perhaps asking him for money, to pay off Madam Delahaye here. And you?"
"Oh, no. He doesn't owe me money."
"What does he owe you?" Fletcher asked, feeling the answer coming:
"Nights!?" exclaimed Donovan. "D'ye need to bribe a djinni king or something?" A 'night' was a widely used unit of magical energy, supposedly the quantity of magic dreamed up in one night by the average human. Donovan's father was estate agent to Darcy's, so it was in the family line that Donovan knew the current exchange rate for a night was about two hundred pounds. "Rollo, did ye hear how many nights he wants?"
"What?" said Vimont, who had been scanning the dark for Deirdre. "Need a loan, Bart? That's fine. But we need to make sure Deirdre's all right."
Coy did not even start to get his hopes up; Vimont clearly hadn't been listening. Donovan saw that too, and sighed. When Rollo's limited attention wasn't engaged, it was like talking to someone deaf. He quoted the figure again. "In nights," he emphasized.
"Oh!" said Vimont. "Oh, sorry, old lad, I just don't have that kind of money." Donovan sighed with relief. Military monster he might now be, but he would always be the son of a prudent businessman, and he was relieved to know that Vimont was unable to be that wasteful. But: "I'd be happy to chip in, if that will help," Vimont volunteered.
Donovan watched the desperation in Coy's face. What did he need that much money for? "There's no time for chipping in!"
"When do you need it?" Donovan asked.
Donovan snorted. "That's cutting it mighty fine."
"Tell me about it." He had been sure he would be able to borrow most of the sum off that diamond charmer in Amsterdam, or that pasha from the Exilate, but they had fallen through, as had one chance after another, until here we was, racing to beg from Vimont. Who said he didn't have it. But he had to. "Mr. Vimont, please!"
"What do you need it for?" Donovan demanded.
"I heard you wondering how Coy keeps from turning satyr when he's around them so much," said the insectile wizard in Fletcher's palm, who had given the use-name of 'Phaleno.' "It's because I gave him a charm against it. The deal is that, when the charm finally fails and he turns, I get him.
"I did not," Phaleno hurried to say, "do anything to make the charm liable to failure. The bodily part is tough enough. It's a tattoo on his scalp, under the hair, on the back of his head. Like this." An arm the dimensions of an eyelash gestured up and a symbol flickered briefly in firefly light—the curling V of the Aries symbol. "It requires only a modest supply of vis—chi, prana, what you will—to keep running, like those nice glamours you gentlemen wear. You did know you were powering them, didn't you?"
Fletcher nodded. "I expected to sleep well tonight. Though now I wonder."
A nicely performed chuckle came out of the air above Fletcher's palm. "Well, I am not here to cause trouble. We made this deal as a game, a contest between us. Coy intended that the charm should never fail, that he would keep it going throughout his life. But I saw recklessness and poor planning in him, so I thought my odds were good. And here we are.
"When you, Madam Delahaye, take your due, your spell will pull all the magic out of him, or its worth in money, until the debt is paid. If it ever is, completely. When my charm is emptied, the satyrism will wait no more and he will change on the spot. This spot. Tonight. Then he's mine."
Fletcher felt the snowflake-light weight on his palm and reflected that, no matter how his next question was answered, he had no power to force the outcome, however things looked. The energy in an insect's body, fully converted, was enough to destroy a city. The magic in this insect was of similar magnitude. "What will you do with him?"
"You know, I can feel your palm grow colder under my feet. Don't worry, Captain. I'm not going to lay eggs in him and have my larvae eat him up, or anything like that. But he's a child of Adam, just as you three are. That has its uses. You are, for this age, the stewards of this world; you have the right to do things that other orders can only hope to get away with. You can name things effortlessly and have it stick. And there is nothing you can't experience."
"All knowledge, good and evil," murmured Fletcher.
"Right. You're an explorer, Captain. That's what you teach your students. I am an explorer, too, along with my colleagues. Like you, we are poking around the edges of reality, to see what we can see. Different edges, but the same idea. Coy will be our scout, our probe. He will experience what we cannot, and we will learn from him."
Sanders cleared his throat and said, "There are a few million Sundered children of Adam in the world. I notice you don't have a volunteer from among them."
"Well, no," Phaleno admitted.
"You are setting him to experience things that ancient and powerful magical beings cannot," said Fletcher. "Or dare not."
"Captain, you are in excellent health for your age and for both your species, but still, in a hundred years' time, you will be in a far more remarkable realm, experiencing things far more extraordinary than anything I could put Coy through. I won't be trying to drive him mad with strangeness."
"You've bet yourself to a bug," Donovan summed up. "And the bet comes due at eleven. Because your charm goes away when this mortal creditor collects."
"I thought it would be easy to keep the charm up," Coy said miserably. "Please, Mr. Vimont! You see why I must get the money. Or the chi."
"I am sorry, old lad," Vimont replied. "I simply don't have it. I'm a little hazy on my bank balance just now, but it's nowhere near– Well, I'll check." He pulled his phone off his belt and consulted. "No, I'm sorry, old lad, nothing like enough. But, um, I have had an idea. I'll call my dad. After all," he added diffidently as he poked at his phone, "It's not for me."
Donovan pondered as he watched Vimont duck his head and turn away. (This looked rather odd, with the glamour, the horse pivoting, seeking privacy along with the man.) Donovan and his classmates "lived in each other's saddlebags," so he had come to know Vimont well in the four months since their transformations. He knew Vimont had called home only twice—once to report with pride on being top of the class in Horse Care, once to ask (ask, poor bugger!) if he could come home for Christmas. (Fortunately, the answer, loud enough to hear without the phone being on loudspeaker, had been "Of course you're coming home! I order you to come home!") And Vimont had been told to never call home for money. So he did not make this call lightly.
Therefore he must believe Coy. Donovan was not certain he did himself, though the fellow's dread seemed genuine. Baron Vimont, though, was not here to see that.
Now what was this? Three men-simple came striding out of the general gloom. One uniformed. And they all walked like cops. Damn. But Donovan smiled and snapped them a proper salute, remembering in time not to stamp his right rear.
The cops looked him over briefly and nodded, but then turned on Coy. Coy muttered softly, "Of course. The only thing missing." Then he clicked his smile in place. "Officers?"
"Are you Bart Coy?" asked Fred, in the uniform. "And are you responsible for this show?" He waved at the tables and the thinly disguised satyrs.
"Yes. This is my business and my staff. I'm a caterer."
"Do you have a license to sell beer and wine here? Because I think I'd have heard about it."
"Oh, I see. No, I don't have that license, but I'm not selling. The refreshments are free tonight." He spoke calmly, smoothly, but Donovan thought he looked taut as a bow string. It would be no surprise if he fainted. It would be no surprise if he punched the cop.
Fred and his friends all frowned, their copper's instincts insulted. "Now why–?" began Fred.
Coy's voice went up half an octave: "I staged this party as a present to Mr. Vimont." He gestured at the north view of a south-facing Vimont, apparently on a horse (or apparently under a man, however you wanted to look at it), deep in an intense phone conversation. "I came to ask him for a loan. In fact, he's talking to someone about it now." His voice fell to a mutter. "Or about the possibility."
"Even giving it away," Fred said, "I don't think it's–"
But he was cut off again, this time by Bill, anxious to get his unSundered friends away. "I'm not sure either, Fred," he said, "but I think our time is better spent keeping a lookout for drunk and disorderly. Leave him to it. Looks as though he has enough troubles."
"Never a truer word," said Coy to their retreating backs, still in the same tense mutter.
Donovan heard and wondered if he should pity. "For justice's sake," he thought to himself, "I hope he's a bad man. A good man wouldn't deserve this."
Deirdre picked her way across the dark pasture, much more slowly than in her panicked dash. She reflected that she was lucky not to have fallen or broken an ankle. Corno paced along, two meters to her right. She had long known that satyrs had more-than-human night vision, but it had been an academic fact; now it was useful as he warned her of rocks and tufts and thistles.
"I'm sorry to cause trouble," she said to him, trying to sound grateful.
"You were startled," he answered.
"But I did know Rollo would be there. And had changed."
"It is quite another thing to encounter the fact."
"Yes, it was." She groped for another topic. A little chat seemed only polite. "I'm still baffled, why he did it." Then, in what seemed like a bright idea, she asked, "Why did you transform, Corno?"
After a little silence, he answered calmly, "In the usual way. I did not mean to."
The idea no longer seemed bright, but it was too late. "Oh. It was an accident? It's usually an accident?"
He sighed. "Yes. I was a bookish sort. I was, in fact, a professor. I thought roistering with satyrs, the arousal they bring, would make me more rounded." He snorted. "And, as one does—as many men have—I lost track of how much exposure I took. I woke up after one too many orgies, and I was this."
"Oh! I'm so sorry! Since you didn't want it."
"Not many do. Even fewer do after the change."
"But you seem so happy." She thought back to the summer with Rollo in Avignon.
"We are actors. We sell bacchanals. And the party is a good time for many of us."
Deirdre wondered, Not for you? "Was this at one of Coy's parties?" she asked.
They were close enough to the fire, she could see him shake his horns. "Coy was not even born then." Deirdre thought of asking how he came to work for Coy, but remembered how her opening question had turned out and stayed silent.
It didn't matter: "Coy bought my service oath from my previous owner," he told her. "There is a little bush here."
"I see it. Thank you. What is Coy like to work for?" She had decided he was enjoying his chance to vent. Or at least taking satisfaction.
Corno sighed. "There are two kinds of faunmasters: the kind who enjoy having slaves to bully, and the cold-blooded kind who just make use of you. The cold-blooded kind are better. They protect their property. Coy is cold-blooded, not too bad. He does not pimp us out very often, or to bad customers. He is careful and has had only four men change at his bacchanals, in all his career. Such events are bad for business."
Deirdre took a startled moment to file away the news about pimping for future consideration, then asked, "Did he take them in?"
Corno shook his head. "All depends on circumstance. Only one did he take in, 'Timmy Tips.' A trained dancer. Another he had chased into the woods. For the other two, he bought one-way tickets to far places."
"Spanish north coast, French south coast. Near forest. We can live in such places." Even when dumped naked, ignorant, transformed, and no longer able to show your face to the unSundered world.
"What do you do for Coy?" she asked, hoping it did not involve the pimping and reminding herself that he was oathbound—that whatever he did, he had little choice.
"Straw boss," Corno answered. "Order the boys around to set things up, break them down. Keep them sober when they have to be. Let them be drunk or stoned when they need to be. Get the charcoal or emetic down them as needed. Provide occasional comic relief."
"At the parties. Papasilenos. Silenus, the drunken sage of the satyrs, Dionysus's foster-father. Fat old soak, not sexy, just funny. All prat-falls and belches."
"I had thought," she said slowly, "that a satyr's life was an alternation of partying and lazing around."
"That is what you are supposed to think. But it is not a life of continual pleasure. It is incessant arousal. Arousal is not pleasure. Pleasure is not happiness. Happiness is not joy. Silenus is supposed to be the wisdom of the wine, the mentor of Dionysus. If that is the role I must be cast in, please take the wisdom I can offer."
"I'm not sure I understand."
"Then please remember it until you do."
"I'm sorry, old lad," said Vimont, turning back to Coy and Donovan. "That is, I have something here, but my dad said that even if he wanted to– I mean, he said he couldn't, not tonight. Something about liquids."
"Liquidity," suggested Donovan. "Plenty of assets but he can't turn them into cash all in a moment." He was watching Coy, who had his eyes tight shut, as though in pain.
"Yes. But he gave me a number. Here." He trotted to Coy and handed him his phone. "Said it was for a spellbroker he knew. Honest. Deals in large sums."
Coy started to copy in the number, then halted as his phone recognized it. "Is this a joke?!" he demanded. "This is Delahaye! She's the one I owe!" He threw Vimont's phone on the ground and glared at Vimont. "Do you think this is funny? Teasing the poor prole as he slides down the hill to the monsters?"
Donovan had started to smile, then thought better, but it didn't matter; Coy was fixed on Vimont, who only looked startled. "You've got it!" Coy insisted. "I know you've got it. That car! That flat! That damned horse of yours! All just toys to you! Your family is as rich as Midas!
"What do you want from me?" he asked, more a demand than a question. "I'll take any service oath you want. I'll give you the satyrs' oaths. I'll be your spy, your pimp, your agent, your anything!"
"Really, old lad, my family doesn't need your–"
"No! They don't need! Of course they don't! If they don't need you, if they'll throw away a son, they certainly won't lean down to bother about me!" He saw shock and hurt in Vimont's face. "You didn't know? You didn't guess? Most discarded heirs at least know it! Didn't your father ever tell you what kind of baron you'd make? Tell you that you were thick-witted and impulsive and couldn't keep your pants zipped? And hasn't he found the perfect fix for that? Hasn't he put you in the barnyard with the other livestock? I may end this night with a tail as long as yours, but at least it wasn't pinned on me by my own father!"
"No, ye'll have done it to yerself!" Donovan snapped. Coy screamed in rage and dashed back to the tables. Donovan watched him go, wishing he had found words sooner. Perhaps a hoof to Coy's head would have been better. He'd need words soon. And Vimont might ask him to swear by his name, or on his honor, or by St. Martin or Michael or some other celestial badass, that Coy had lied. But Coy had spoken only truth.
And here it came: "Bill," Vimont begged, "is that true?"
Well, as far as it went. It was only a half-truth. A half-truth was a lie. Vimont had been transformed within seconds of Donovan. Donovan had been preoccupied as never before—new legs, a tail, a whole new second body, his best friend in the same case as himself—but he had still noticed the mingled grief and pride on his parents' faces when they came in afterward, and he had caught bits and pieces of the reactions of the other families. He had compared notes later with the others. Baron Vimont and his wife had sorrowed, whenever Vimont wasn't looking. So had his brother and sisters. But they had congratulated him and put on proud faces for him.
Exasperating and unsuitable to the baronage he might be, but they loved him and wanted him to be happy.
"Your dad didn't throw you away," Donovan announced, as if this were as obvious as that it was dark tonight. "Don't you have a command performance coming up at Christmas? Yes, you're out of the succession, but you didn't want to be in the succession, did you?"
"Oh, no. All that paperwork and business deals and politics."
"And you and your dad talked about that, didn't you?"
"Oh, yes. We agreed I'd do better as a soldier."
"Well, then, he just helped you pick your career. Coy is upset. Very natural. So he's lashing out. You tried to help and it fell through. The little git would be grateful if he could think straight just now. That's all." And if that was a half-truth, it was a better and more nearly whole one than Coy's, as Donovan would argue to St. Michael or whoever, if the time ever came.
But Vimont didn't ask for an oath. He just gave a slightly watery smile and said, "Thanks, Bill." Then he looked into the dark and asked, "But where's Deirdre?"
"Rollo, is that you?" Deirdre asked. They were nearing the bonfire now, and she could see what looked like a man on horseback, walking along with them, on the far side of Corno. She could also see that it was really a centaur.
"No, miss," the shape replied. "Cavalryman Bennet Darcy at your service, miss." He saluted her.
"Mr. Darcy brought me to you," Corno said briefly.
"Then thank you, Mr. Darcy."
"Quite welcome, miss. My pal Bill Donovan kept Mr. Vimont back, so you wouldn't be alarmed. But you can see them up ahead now. Do you want, um...?" He trailed off.
"It's fine. I won't be alarmed any more. That was– I'm sorry to have caused a fuss."
"Not at all, miss. And I'm sure Rollo didn't mean to startle you."
"I'm sure, too," she answered, now remembering his fondness for hugs. She picked up her pace and aimed for Rollo and his big red friend. The friend, Bill Donovan, was no trouble to look at, a combination of handsome and odd. So was Mr. Darcy, now becoming visible as they approached the light. It was Rollo whose appearance made her cringe.
No doubt because she knew him before. That was it: analyze the situation. "Divide each difficulty into as many parts as is feasible and necessary to resolve it," she quoted to herself, and "Always try to master yourself." Thank you, Dr. Descartes. She concentrated on the part of Rollo she knew, wearing a smart uniform jacket and dashing curly beard. And a worried expression, poor lamb. Or colt? She was able to smile a fraction. "No problems, pretty pony!" she called.
He turned, grinned, and once more spread arms and stepped forward. Deirdre held her smile but Donovan gave a loud, whickering cough. Vimont checked. The worried look flashed back. Then, slowly and carefully, clearly afraid she would bolt again, he knelt, reclining, making himself lower than she and less mobile. The smile and the welcoming arms returned, though not confidently.
She marched up to him, completed the hug, and kissed his cheek. Above their heads, Darcy and Donovan exchanged thumbs-up.
"I will see to the tables," Corno announced, marching on.
"Well done, gentlemen," a familiar voice said, and the two foster-brothers turned to see Fletcher approaching, trailed by Sanders and a woman new to them, Delahaye.
Darcy started to make introductions, but Delahaye interrupted: "Do any of you know where Coy's got to now?"
"He ran off to the tables, ma'am," Donovan said.
"Well, he's not there now." She looked at Deirdre, who was exchanging apologies with Vimont. "Has he gone to fetch any more surprises out of the dark?"
"I'm sure I don't know, ma'am. He left in quite a state. Looks like he's losing a bet with a bug."
"Yes," said Fletcher. "We've met the bug." They pooled information for a few minutes, until Corno walked up. He was now in a pair of the ragged shorts.
He addressed himself to Delahaye and Fletcher. "Lady and sir, you should know that Coy is gone, along with a small white van and two of the boys, Caper and Timmy. I have no idea where or why."
"He can't run away from the oath," Delahaye averred.
"Rob a bank?" Donovan suggested brightly. "Or does someone around here have some good jewelry?
Darcy gave an amused sniff but Corno said, "He has no skills or spells or weapons for such a thing."
"Or the time," Fletcher remarked. "Why eleven o'clock, ma'am? Isn't midnight or dawn more usual?"
"When it's eleven o'clock here," Delahaye replied, "it's midnight in Zurich, and that's where the oath was sworn."
"Ah. And why those two fellows? Caper and Timmy? Are they particularly favored servants?"
Corno shook his head. "They are the two he took into your town, with the van, to look for Mr. Vimont. They have short horns and are easy to disguise, that is all."
"So did he take them back to Ufham?" asked Fletcher. "And, of course, why?"
Delahaye took out her dowsing stick again. "If I could tell his direction, we'd have a clue." She twiddle the stick for a few seconds, but shook her head.
"Rollo," said Donovan, "lend the lady your phone, would you? Ma'am," he said to Delahaye, "Coy used it just a little while ago, about the debt, and was in a rare temper when he did. All that could help, right?"
Delahaye nodded and accepted the phone Vimont passed her, but the results were no better. She passed the phone to Fletcher, who contemplated it a moment, then shook his head. "Warded," he said, and she nodded.
"Does it matter?" asked Sanders. "It sounds like, come eleven, he's going to turn into a satyr and then be claimed by Phaleno, no matter what."
"Probably," agreed Delahaye. "But he's hopping around like a flea on a griddle, trying to prevent it. I just wonder what he's up to."
"So do I, " said Fletcher. "He's up for trying something drastic."
"I will ask among the boys," Corno said, "to find if any of them saw or heard anything to the purpose. I need to call them in anyway, to get their pants on. If he is abandoning us, voluntarily or not, there is no further point to these antics."
"Thank you, sir," said Fletcher. "Will your 'boys' follow you, once Coy is gone?"
"I think so, yes. Most of them."
"And where would you take them? I gather you don't want to go on catering bacchanals."
Corno sighed. "I would seek a way off this Earth, out of zone—find some zone with warm winters, woods, farms where we could hire as labor—a big step up for us. Vineyards are good, of course." He sighed again. "Wishes. I shall go attend to business." He turned and left.
"Little wishes," Sanders muttered.
"Anything bigger has been kicked out of him," Fletcher replied, low.
"The passage in the Wood?" Sanders suggested.
Fletcher nodded. "I will ask. We're sure to see some fays on the way back tonight." Then he added at normal volume, "First, let's see the end of Coy's business."
But there was, for some time, nothing to see. Potatoes for roasting showed up. Satyrs in shorts came up and offered snacks and drinks. The music shifted to folk tunes at a low volume.
Then Vimont's phone rang. "It's him!" Vimont exclaimed, looking at the ID. Unprompted, he put it on speaker and held it out.
"Vimont?" barked Coy. "Listen to this." Then, to someone else, "Poke it again!" There was a mumbling in a more distant voice. "Poke it!"
There was the squeal of a horse in fear or pain.
"That's Zelda!" Vimont exclaimed.
"Yes it is," Coy answered. "And if you want her back, pay up. I have a gun. Don't call back unless it's to say you've paid." He hung up.
Everyone looked at Vimont. "I can't!" he said. "I really can't! If I could–"
Fletcher turned toward the tables and bellowed, "Corno!" The silenus hastened over. "Does Coy have a gun?"
Corno stared. "He does. I have only seen it three times or four. But you can easily believe he is often in unsavory company. What has happened?"
"He's kidnapped Mr. Vimont's mare, for ransom. He threatened with a gun. I think he would use it. To me, to us, a horse is almost like a child. To him, I think it is just property. What do you think he would do?"
Corno sighed and nodded. "He will not shoot while there is any chance. But the moment he recovers from the change, he will shoot in revenge, as he will think of it."
"Right." Fletcher stared blankly into the bonfire for a few second. "Our only chance is a physical meeting. He won't talk except about payment, and he'll stop talking when he sees no incoming cash or energy."
"But we can't find him," said Delahaye. "He's warded."
"Zelda's not. Mr. Vimont, come here." Vimont obeyed and Fletcher put a hand on his shoulder, then pointed with the other. "Straight toward Ufham, moving away slowly. Madam Delahaye, can you do the same?" She reached up to Vimont's elbow, twiddled her dowsing wand, and nodded. "Can you hold the fix while moving?" She nodded again. "Then let's get going."
"How can you catch him?" asked Deirdre. "He has the van. He may be moving slowly now, but– And you don't really know where he is. You just have a direction, not a position."
"As to the van, it's limited to roads. We can go cross-country," Fletcher answered. "We'll split up and triangulate to locate him. That is–" He turned to Delahaye. "–if you really are willing to help. You don't really have a horse in this race. The oath will see you paid, no matter what."
She looked indignant. "Do you think I'm purely coin-operated? I want to see the little git foiled."
Fletcher nodded. "Thank you. Mr. Darcy, please assist." Darcy crouched down next to Delahaye. "I'm sorry we've no saddles," Fletcher said.
Delahaye waved this away, shed her coat, and threw it over Darcy's back. "Bareback isn't as hard as people think, in the short run." She scrambled aboard.
"Hold on to the heavy braiding on my jacket, ma'am," Darcy told her, rising carefully.
Fletcher turned to Corno next. "Are you willing to help?"
Donovan crouched down and took on Corno, muttering, "Glad he put on pants."
"You four," said Fletcher, "head straight back to Ufham through the woods. Delahaye, call me if the bearing moves. Sanders and I will go– Let's see... East or west?"
"Guess, sir," said Sanders. "You're good at it."
Immediately, Fletcher said, "Sanders and I will head east along Wiffbourne Road, then cut across to Ufham. I will call you, Delahaye, if the bearing does anything odd. Maybe we can box him in on the Silchester road."
"Mr. Vimont, go to the fairy copse and ask Chisswyck for help."
"The brownie at the Bow and Sabre's stable. Zelda was stolen from his stable; he may feel this touches his honor."
Deirdre immediately reached up and grabbed the braiding on Vimont's back. "Let me on," she told him.
"Uh…" quoth Vimont.
"If it's fays, there may be glamour. I can help."
"Thank you, miss," said Fletcher. Vimont knelt. Following Delahaye's example, Deirdre threw her orange coat over his back and jumped on.
"Right," said Fletcher. "Charge."
Deirdre held onto Vimont's jacket and congratulated herself on holding herself together. There was a moral cause to pursue and she would pursue it. Never mind that pursuit meant her first horseback ride, in the dark, with no saddle, and on a "horse" who was a transformed old boy-friend. It would make quite the diary entry.
Were they galloping? Was this lurching galloping? She'd know if she could see it from the sidelines, by daylight, but not here and now. The issue was, if this was not galloping, then he might start galloping, and that would probably be worse.
"Thank you for coming, Deirdre," he said. He had breath for talking. When he didn't talk, she could feel the ribs pumping in both torsos, the old one before her and the new one she rode.
"Sure," she answered. "Filthy thing to do, to threaten your horse." She had never met Zelda, but she'd heard about her from Rollo; he obviously loved her the way one could love a pet dog. "See the green lights? Head for them."
"She's such a dear little thing," Rollo said. He sounded like a fond father. Horses are like children to us, the captain had said. Of course, Rollo had talked that way before, too.
The fairy copse was not far, at a gallop. The cloud of unseasonal firefly lights came rushing up. Deirdre felt the ribcage under her inflate just before Rollo shouted, amazingly loud, "Mr. Chisswyck! Help! Please!"
And then the thousand-pound beast under her skipped, coming far closer to spilling her than on the gallop, as a voice from behind them drawled, "Now, this is the limit!" Rollo bounced again. "Kicking? Worse and worse." Had Rollo just kicked?
Twisting at neck and waist, Rollo stared fearfully over Deirdre's shoulder. "Sorry, sir!" he yelped. Deirdre followed his gaze and beheld, standing in his own light, a cat-man in Cavalry dress, the Colonel. Angry.
The light went out. For Rollo, he was gone. Deirdre could still see him, barely, in the dim, crowding flickers. The Colonel hopped to their left and crouched low, near vulnerable belly. "What to do with you?" he murmured, or growled. Rollo jigged away from the sound, but his left arm flew up to ward Deirdre. The whole mass of him was trembling. Or was that her?
The Colonel leapt lightly to Rollo's rump, landing on one foot. He could have breathed down on Deirdre's head but did not stay so long. He continued the jump, landing on their right side. Rollo yelped, the noise more canine than human or equine. That foot had felt clawed, not booted. His other arm flew back and he clasped hands, embracing Deirdre against his spine. She hugged him around his chest.
"Where–?" he began in a whisper.
"He's on our right," she answered.
"By your haunch," the Colonel amplified. "Your round, meaty haunch. I haven't tasted horse in an age." And his jaw dropped down to his chest. His canines grew into hand-length fangs.
Rollo lowered his left arm. "Deirdre!" he whispered. "Go! Go! If he just wants horse–"
"Or he might take the slow, weak target," Deirdre whispered back, hugging tighter.
"I can hear you perfectly well," the Colonel put in.
Deirdre ignored him. "Anyway, don't you have a pact with these creatures? You told me about signs and countersigns and all."
"Right," he squeaked, then, in that superhuman bellow, called, "Keep faith and so do we!"
The Colonel sighed. "That's my line," he chided. "The person starting the conversation should say 'Return and we return' and the reply is 'Keep faith and so do we.' But you just came barging in. Offing you would clearly raise the Cavalry's average intelligence."
"Offing him would bring the Pact down on us," said a new voice. "Have the Blood Lady or the White Errant on our doorstep tomorrow, for you to answer to. Close your mouth, pussy, before something flies in. Who crapped in your mess kit this evening?"
Rollo recognized the squirrel-fay from the livery stable, popping out of the brush in his own halo of light. "Mr. Chisswyck, please, Zelda– That is, Return and we–"
"Yes, yes. We're past that. What about Zelda?"
"She's been stolen! By Coy. The faunmaster. Fletcher's after him. He sent me to–"
Chisswyck swarmed out of the bracken, up Rollo's foreleg, and was suddenly between his back and Deirdre. Squirrel faces are much cuter when they are the right size and at a distance. He pointed toward the woods. "She's that way!" Gladly leaving the Colonel behind, Rollo launched into a gallop. Deirdre was quite sure it was a gallop.
Chisswyck climbed on Rollo's shoulder and started shouting directions to the path entrance, which he could see, apparently, though the mortals could not. Then he made an exasperated noise, waved a hand-paw, and the starlight became bright enough. Rollo adjusted course.
The galloping reduced to a trot, once they were in the woods. "Rollo," Deirdre said, "call the captain and give me the phone." He obeyed.
"Yes?" came the old centaur's voice over a rumble of hoofbeats.
"Captain, we've got Mr. Chisswyck with us. He's tracking Zelda."
"Good. See if you can meet up with Darcy and Donovan on the way."
"Yessir," she said and hung up. She wondered if she should have said "roger" or "out" or something.
But Chisswyck had other criticisms. "Sit up straight, girl. And hold on with your knees. You ride like a sack of potatoes."
"Yessir. Sorry, sir. This is my first time."
He chirped something that might have been a rodentine cuss word. "Well. We must make allowances."
Delahaye did not ride like a sack of potatoes. She was no Standard Cavalry rider, but as Darcy sped up, she changed her own rhythm to suit and sat lower. There was a gasping note to her breathing, though, that worried Darcy.
As they approached the woods, Darcy turned on his phone's light, looking for the entrance to the path. His foster-brother did the same a couple of hoofbeats later and, in a few seconds, so did Delahaye. Still, the lights didn't add up to much. "Give me the light!" Corno called, and Darcy remembered that satyrs had cat-like night vision.
"Here you go," Donovan said, and one of the feeble patches of light immediately picked out the path. They dove in.
Empty. In the day, there were birds and squirrels, and you were almost sure to meet a fay if you spent any time in here. But the nocturnal animals stayed well away from the thunder of hooves, and all the fays, apparently, were partying in the copse. How uncanny was the emptiness of a wood that was not haunted.
Corno and Donovan had to cooperate closely. Corno could see, but Donovan knew the way. Or thought he did. "It all looks so different at night!" he grumbled to the satyr.
"Will we go wrong if we head for the lights?" Corno asked.
"I see lights through the branches. Electric light, I think."
"Go for it."
After two dead ends and a collision with Darcy and Delahaye as they backed up, Corno led them out of the woods, into an array of big, square, boxy buildings. "This is the motor pool," declared Donovan. "Right!"
He cranked his gait up to a canter. Darcy was soon beside him and then they were dashing through the barracks area, across the athletic field, and down the main street. Lots of lights on. Lots of people out. But the street itself was clear. Galloping time. Someone cheered as they passed. Someone whistled. Darcy heard the gasping in Delahaye's breath and this time realized she was laughing.
Then they were out of town, with farm houses and garden patches on either side. Then woods again. And here was the intersection with the Silchester road. "Right or left?" asked Darcy.
"Fletcher and Sanders would be coming in from the left," said Donovan. "We're to meet them."
"And I see just a little light through the trees that way," added Corno.
They turned left. Darcy phoned Fletcher and told them where they were. "Good," said his captain. "I've called the base patrols. You call your classmates—Littlejohn and Corliss are still blissfully unaware of all this—and that other fellow, with the two white legs. Dawes. Ha! I see headlights. He's going to see us but he needn't see you. Go softly. Sneak. And leave your phone on."
Hooves don't have to make a lot of noise on a dirt road, if you're careful. Corno's panting was louder. "May I get down?" he asked. Donovan paused and knelt for him.
Before Darcy could do the same for Delahaye, she slid off, then reached up, put a hand around his neck, drew his head down, and kissed him firmly on the cheek. "Thank you, you beautiful boy!" He heard Donovan chuckle.
"Quite welcome, ma'am," he answered, feeling himself blush.
"I don't suppose anyone has a gun? A sword?" she asked hopefully. Somebody has her blood up, thought Darcy.
"Ma'am," answered Donovan, "we were going to a neighbor's party, not to battle. We thought."
"Well, I've got a couple of knives, if that helps."
"Bein' a spellbroker must be more interestin' than I realized," Donovan remarked, but Corno groaned. "What's your problem?" he asked.
"My oath. Please, do not hurt him. I must try to prevent that."
"Getting transformed and ... taken doesn't count as harm?" Donovan asked.
"I have been helping him avoid that, too."
"You've made no move to help him in his horse-thieving," Darcy said.
"He said nothing of it. He knows I would tell him it was foolish."
"Well, thanks for the warning," said Donovan. "We're not out to hurt him."
"Though I can't say I'd mind..." Darcy muttered.
They proceeded in silence for a bit and so became aware of the voices coming from their open phones:
"...the lad was born into riches," Fletcher was saying. "Money means nothing to him. But that mare does, as you well know. If he could pay your ransom, he would. He simply can't."
"Where is he?" came Coy's voice. They rounded a curve. Lights flickered through trees, then came into plain view: red taillights ahead.
"I sent him to fetch help, of course," Fletcher answered, "rather than be here, presenting you with a handle. Look, you are not Grand Norman, and Phaleno is not in the Pact with our fay allies, but if you turn around now and go back to Ufham, you'll be in Grand Norman territory. I might be able to call in our fays. They might be able to stymie Phaleno."
"I'd still be a satyr!"
"But you'd be free."
They turned off their phones since they could hear Fletcher directly now, and saw him and Sanders standing in the van's headlights, squinting in the glare, blocking the way. Bangs and thumps came out of the van, exactly as if it contained a frightened horse.
Fletcher: "It's no use, Mr. Coy. We would ransom the mare if we could, but there's just no time. If you shoot her, you have no handle. If you promise–"
"Then I'll shoot Caper! And Timmy!"
Fletcher sighed. "I know that, in law, that's a worse threat, but you really had us with Zelda. Here and now, just us on this dark road, I care more about her. We know her; we care about her. Remember, you are dealing with talking horses. That's what we are, as much as we also remain men. You already have your best handle on us; no need to make things worse by adding hostages."
Corno turned to Delahaye. "Please give me a knife," he said. His voice was low and trembling, not the growl of the furious but the quaver of the terrified.
Delahaye flicked her phone beam over him, studying him. Then she reached into her coat and handed him a sheathed knife. Corno took it with a shaking hand, then bent over as if shuddering with nausea.
Donovan and Darcy traded glances in the dark. "The oath penalty," Donovan murmured, and Darcy nodded. Corno was breaking his oath of service to Coy; this was giving him a panic attack, but he was still doing it.
"Shoot her," Fletcher was saying, "and you lose that handle, and we will all come down on you, and we'll see what's left for Phaleno. If you promise not to shoot her or anyone else, I will promise to intercede with Phaleno for you, as best I can."
The thumps and bangs continued. Now, the door cracked open. The foster-brothers took three cautious steps toward it.
"Why would you care about my promise?" Coy demanded.
"You can take an oath. It'll last through your transformation. I know about that. Or you can just promise and I'll know if you mean it."
"Yes. I know, for instance, that you've got enchantments on your van's machinery, probably to prevent breakdowns. Good investment. I also know, because I'm Receptant and because I've been his mentor for a few months, that Vimont is honest, and if he says he can't pay the ransom, he really can't. The lad's rich, but not that rich. His father is probably rich enough, but it would take him weeks, not hours, to raise the money or the vis. Mr. Coy, I'm sorry—I think it's an unduly harsh penalty for a rash bet—but you're going to turn into a satyr. I don't see how to prevent it."
Coy gave a scream of rage like the one he had given when he bolted from Vimont. As if that were the signal, the back of the van burst open and Timmy and Caper leapt out. "Get back here!" Coy roared, and their sprints turned into staggers, but they kept staggering. They shied from the centaurs but gave cries of relief as they recognized Corno. He grabbed them by their upper arms and hustled them away, into darkness.
The young satyrs were fleeing Coy but also Zelda's flailing hooves. There were her hindquarters, kicking away. Donovan dove in beside her, intent on hauling her out. And there was Coy, crouched between the seats at the front of the van, face a white mask of panic, gun drawn.
Donovan grabbed Zelda's head, then leaned forward, toward Coy. His reasoning ("if you want to call it that," Darcy said later) came from a scrap of Fletcher's teaching that blew through his mind just then: You don't need your human heart any longer. Or lungs or stomach or other human viscera. You don't want to get hit at all, of course, but your reflex is to shield your original human body, while it's your new equine body you really need. And Fletcher had cited the interesting case of "Heartless Harrison," whose human heart had been destroyed in combat, but who had recovered and gone on to years more service (in a more cautious frame of mind) and was with us yet.
So Donovan shielded Zelda's head and his own equine body with his human torso. Just incidentally, this meant that Coy had a huge, bristling young man-monster thrusting into his face, glaring intensely.
Part of Donovan was grabbing for Zelda's head and working out how she could possibly be calmed. Another part was sorting legs for the backing up and getting ready to haul Zelda out with him. And the remaining part was waiting for the bang and wondering how much it would hurt.
But Coy just gasped, clutched the gun to his chest like a protective amulet, and did his own backing, into the dashboard.
Donovan hauled on Zelda. She stumbled and thrashed for a couple of feet, then realized that getting away was now an option and backed with great enthusiasm. Horse and man-horse uncorked onto the road. Zelda turned away from the nightmarish box that had imprisoned her and bolted into the dark.
Donovan gave a cry and started after her. But just then Coy stumbled out of the van with his own cry, still holding the gun. He took in the scene lit by the van's taillights: the two young centaurs and Delahaye.
"Of course," he breathed. "I should have thought." He pointed the gun at Delahaye.
She glared at him. "The debt would only shift to my estate," she snapped.
Darcy kicked out with a foreleg and knocked the gun out of Coy's hand. It did not go far. Coy scrabbled for it, but Darcy brought a hoof down on it, then crouched down, face to face with Coy. "Suppose it would work. Which kind of monster would you rather be?"
Coy closed his eyes, dropped his head, and sighed. He sat on the dirt road, not moving, not looking up when Fletcher and Sanders came hurrying around the van. Darcy handed Fletcher the gun.
Over the next two minutes, Fletcher debriefed the foster-brothers and Delahaye. Fletcher eyed Donovan. "Grabbing Zelda was good strategy, but your tactics... The risk you put yourself in..."
"Well, sir, Mr. Corno knows him well, and he said Coy wouldn't really shoot until he despaired. And I blocked the shot as well as I could."
"Mm. You are justified by the event. And you, Mr. Darcy, actually ended it. Well done."
"Sir," asked Donovan, "how did you keep Coy from shooting you or Lt. Sanders?"
"I made it clear early on that he had at most one shot. After that, he would have at least one, maybe two, blood enemies and no time. And I am the one who told you about Heartless Harrison."
He looked down at the collapsed man-simple. "Mr. Coy, do you want to go back to Ufham while there is time? Try my suggestion?"
Coy shook his bowed head, eyes still closed. "Are your fay lords here? Your White and Red Lords and Ladies? Or those others? You can't summon the likes of them on short notice. And do you honestly think they would care to cross Phaleno over me?"
Fletcher sighed and said nothing, then looked up at the sound of approaching hooves. It was Vimont, bearing Deirdre, lighting their way with their phones. Next to them trotted Zelda with Chisswyck standing easily on her withers. Vimont grinned broadly as he came to a halt, and saluted.
"Captain! Look who came trotting down the road to us! And you got him, I see!" he said, looking down at Coy.
"Right!" said Chisswyck. "You shoulda seen the state this mare was in, 'fore I put the soothin' on her. Buggerin' horse-thief!" he snarled at Coy, using his worst insult. "You're for it!" And he crouched to leap off the horse.
"Mr. Chisswyck," said Fletcher, "your help has been invaluable and your wrath fully justified, but save your strength. Mr. Coy here will soon be punished most severely." He checked the time and sighed again.
"And I would be compelled to defend him." Corno appeared from the shadows at the side of the road, Timmy and Caper hovering behind him. "Please do not place me so."
Coy raised his head and looked at his servant. "Not compelled. Not wholly. And not any more. Nunc liberabo te." (I now free thee.) He glanced at Caper and Timmy. "Et omnibus vobis." (And all of you.) Fletcher grunted and Delahaye raised her brows, feeling the bonds snap. The young satyrs started, shifted on their feet, and stared at each other. Corno just gazed at his former master.
The silence stretched into minutes. People checked the time on their phones. Eventually, Corno said to Coy, "Boy, you will be more comfortable, when it comes, if you take off your clothes now." Coy just lowered his head again and started to weep silently.
After another minute, Coy waved his hand back over his shoulder, at the van that sat purring, shining its taillights on the scene. "It's yours, Corno. My stuff. All of it. All of you here, bear witness."
"That–" Corno began.
Suddenly, Coy sprang to his feet. Everyone present, even the least magical, felt the shift as power went rushing, passing, draining out of the area. Fletcher, Sanders, and Donovan, standing somewhat behind Coy, saw a firefly glitter on the back of his head sparkle and fade—an Aries sign winking out.
The next moment, Coy doubled over, and the next his hands flew to his temples, where spiraling black horns, like those of a kudu antelope, were sprouting. He straightened and looked up, into the dark air, gazing frantically. His ears, now pointed, swiveled, already reflexively searching for any hint of–
"Good evening, Mr. Coy." Everyone glanced up, following the voice. Phaleno drifted in a little ball of flame-colored light. "Don't worry. You won't be a satyr long."
Coy gave a cry and shrank out of his clothes. After the cloth had fluttered to the ground, a green mantis, about an inch long, crawled out of the shirt collar. It staggered, as if unsure how to walk with four legs. Phaleno fluttered down and hovered before the mantis's face, no longer wobbling in the air but nailed there like a dragonfly. The mantis recoiled.
Suddenly, Phaleno was on the mantis's back. It froze. Phaleno flirted out his own wings, cape-style. "Come, Mr. Coy. We have business elsewhere. I'll show you how to use the new bits. Good evening, ladies and gentlemen." The mantis's wings rose behind him and they flew into the night.
After a pause, Chisswyck said, "Well. I see what you mean, Captain. Here, boy, take your mare back to the stables. Go slow, she's tired. I'm back to the copse while there's some eggnog left."
Chisswyck launched off Zelda's back, into the branches above, and was gone. Vimont took her halter. She nuzzled him in the chest. "Good girl," he murmured. Then, to the company. "Thank you. Thank you, all."
There was a confused, cheerful chorus on the theme of "You're welcome."
Corno had picked up Coy's empty clothes. He looked at them thoughtfully, then tossed them into the back of the van. He gestured to the young satyrs to get in. As they obeyed, he said to the others, "I will go back and pick up. And tell the others, if they have not felt it for themselves. And think what to do."
"Come to me in the morning," said Fletcher, "and we will see what can be done."
Sanders raised his phone. "I'll call off the base patrols and the others. And then, Captain?"
"Back to Wiffbourne Hill," Fletcher declared, "to relax a bit."
Darcy knelt before Delahaye. "Ma'am? Would you like a ride back?"
"Thank you, cavalryman. We can go slower this time, though the gallop was thrilling."
Corno paused, climbing into the van, and looked to Deirdre. She was still sitting on Vimont, but she had been shy around centaurs. "Do you wish a ride back, miss? We will be polite."
"I'm sure of that," Deirdre replied. She squeezed Vimont's shoulder. "But I have a ride."
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Copyright © Earl Wajenberg, 2020