Pockets of the Janostovore
by Rab Foster
Wirmiosa Hoag had never danced before. Nobody would have expected her to
dance. Not a proud, dignified, high-ranking artisan like her, Deputy Head
of the city's Guild of Garment Makers, member of its elite Gold Rank of
Outfitters, and winner of such coveted awards as the Order of the Quartz
Needle and the Silver Scissors of Excellence. But this afternoon, such was
the elation of the normally reserved and snobbish Wirmiosa that she danced
about her back office, the tape-measure around her neck joggling like an
Every few moments, she paused in her dance to look down at the promissory
note she was holding and confirm that the transaction that'd just happened
really had happened.
She wasn't dancing because of the money she'd made, but because of the fact
that her tailoring business was the first one in the city of Vildavos in
many years to fashion a jacket out of the hide of a janostovore.
Furthermore, this jacket had so impressed one of the city's most
talked-about, fashionable and eligible young nobles that he'd paid a
fortune for it.
Then Wirmiosa remembered the apprentices who were toiling upstairs. A few
of the best apprentices had been allowed to contribute to the jacket's
creation and she decided it'd be good for morale if she told them the news
and praised their efforts. She stopped dancing, attempted to appear serious
and sober and ascended a stairwell to the apprentice's workshop. Still,
however, she felt so elated that she had to struggle to stop her feet
jigging and breaking into a dance again.
Then she entered the workshop, her elation vanished and a different emotion
possessed her: horror.
On the room's far side, at the end of an avenue formed by two rows of
worktables, stood a dummy consisting of a human-shaped head and torso
mounted on a pole. A three-quarters-finished jacked was draped around its
armless shoulders. An apprentice knelt by its side, adding gold stitching
to the cuff of a loose-hanging sleeve. The material from which the jacket
was made had a silvery sheen, characteristic of a janostovore hide.
Which meant this new jacket came from the same roll of hide, dehaired,
lye-soaked, de-fleshed, grained, rinsed and wrung, brained, softened and
smoked, that Trapper Helrick had sold her a month ago.
The apprentice realised his mistress was in the workshop and sprang up. He
was Gundavar Shyl, the most industrious but also most impulsive of the
current crop of apprentices. "Hello, Mistress," he said. "I'd planned to
keep this secret a little longer so it'd be a surprise for you. But as it's
almost finished, I guess I can unveil it now."
"You," croaked Wirmiosa, "have made a jacket from Trapper Helrick's
janostovore hide. A second jacket."
Several other apprentices were in the room, but they kept their faces close
to whatever they were working on, sensing that trouble was brewing.
Gundavar seemed not to sense this himself. "Yes," he said brightly. "After
you'd removed the material for the first jacket, there was a lot left over.
It didn't make sense to throw it away. I calculated there was enough left
to make a second jacket and, well, I took the initiative. Seeing as it was
a marvellous chance to get extra practice …" Then, finally, he
noticed the negativity in his mistress's manner. "Um, I did the right thing
in taking the initiative, didn't I? It was intended as a surprise for you-"
Wirmiosa lurched forwards, her arms outstretched as if she wanted to
embrace the jacket, though the claw-like shape of her hands suggested she
wanted more to tear it to shreds. "A surprise? It's certainly that, a
damnably horrible one! Don't you know that you only make one jacket
out of one janostovore hide? That's been the Guild of Garment
Makers' rule for generations. For Eras. Throughout all the Eras!"
Gundavar inserted himself between the old woman and the dummy. His voice
was puzzled. "Why's it a rule?"
Wirmiosa's eyes bulged. "Why? It's a rule, you idiot, because the Guild
"But if it's a rule, there must be a reason for it. You can't expect people
to follow rules without giving them reasons to follow them."
"Because it's a janostovore hide! And the janostovore is different from the
other beasts whose skins we make clothes from!" Gundavar looked at her
blankly and it occurred to her that maybe because janostovore hides were
rare these days he didn't know anything about them. More calmly, she
explained: "It's a creature defined by duality. The ancient legends claimed
it had two heads, with two brains and two faces, but of course now we know
its duality doesn't extend that far. But it has double sets of organs. Two
hearts, livers, pairs of kidneys …"
Gundavar interrupted with an impatient, even insolent tone that fired up
Wirmiosa's rage again. "Well, Mistress, that's fascinating. But we're
tailors, not veterinarians. We only work with the hide. What do two pairs
of kidneys have to do with that?"
"Because the hide's part of the creature and suffused with its dual
essence, too. 'Janostovore' is the term we use for it today but in other
Eras it had other names. 'The Double Lurker'. 'The Prowler of Two Realms'.
'The Beast of Here and There'. Those names give clues to its powers. It's
said to live beyond the physical laws that bind all other creatures in this
world. It isn't confined to existence in one place at one time but can be
in two places simultaneously. And in times of danger, in an instant, it can
magically flit from one place to another. Which makes it hellishly
difficult to hunt. Trapper Helrick did well to catch this one."
Gundavar absorbed this for a moment, but sounded unconvinced when he spoke
again. "Well, there's certainly some colourful folklore about it, Mistress.
But I still don't see why the Guild forbids the manufacture of two jackets
from a single hide."
"Because of the duality!" screeched Wirmiosa. "You're asking for trouble if
you make two things from any part of it! You're inviting catastrophe!" She
sidestepped her apprentice and wrenched the jacket off the dummy's
shoulders. "I'm having this destroyed!"
Gundavar Shyl snatched the jacket back from her. "No! Not after all the
effort I've put into making it!" And to escape Wirmiosa, he ran with the
jacket through the nearest doorway.
This was a mistake, because the doorway led to nowhere but a balcony,
halfway up the side of the stout brick tower that contained Wirmiosa's
business. The wind, gritted with dust and dirt from the chimneystacks of
Vildavos's distant industrial district, struck him and blinded him for a
moment. The jacket flapped madly in his hands and he nearly let go of it.
But he clung on.
As he struggled to drag the jacket down from the wind, he crashed against
the balustrade running along the balcony's edge. Then he looked around and
saw his mistress in pursuit. With a swiftness and agility surprising for
someone her age, Wirmiosa sprang forward and grasped at the thrashing
jacket. But her clawed hands missed it and her fingernails slashed down and
scored Gundavar's cheeks instead. The apprentice howled and his own hands
dropped and clutched his face.
And the jacket was free.
Powered by the thermals swirling around Vildavos, the jacket swooped up
from the balcony and tower and away from the furious old mistress tailor
and the despairing young apprentice one.
The jacket rose past the summit of Wirmiosa Hoag's tower and past all the
coned roofs, parapets, turrets, gambrels and stepped gables on the lumpen
girdle of architecture that formed this level of the city. The level
contained not just the tailoring businesses but the businesses of all the
higher-ranking guilds, the apothecaries, barber-surgeons, carpenters,
cordwainers, cutlers, goldsmiths, scriveners, upholsterers and vintners.
Higher, its sleeves wagging like wings, the jacket passed taller, sleeker
structures with more aesthetically pleasing colours and textures of
brickwork. Here lived and toiled the city's officials, its judiciary, its
municipal secretaries and deputies.
Then, though the thermals propelling it had started to lose force, the
jacket reached the palatial heights that crowned the city and were home to
its aristocracy. These were a cluster of elegant towers, spires and
minarets, busily adorned with clock faces, stained glass, belfries,
weathervanes, gargoyles and sculpted waterspouts.
The jacket didn't quite climb to the level of the flag of Vildavos, which
swam from a pole planted on the peak of the tallest spire. But it briefly
achieved parity with a subsidiary flag, a pennant on which the city's
slogan was emblazoned: A RICH MAN, AN OPPORTUNITY SEIZED, A POOR ONE, AN
OPPORTUNITY MISSED. Then the thermals ran out of puff and the jacket
Outside Wirmiosa Hoag's tower, Count Roostar Nevys was making his way from
the front door to his coach. Subsidence in the city's foundations far below
meant that Vildavos had a slight, almost imperceptible tilt. And on this
tier of the city, Wirmiosa's business was located at the rim of the lower
end, which meant that all the uncontained fluids on the level drained
towards it. A gruesome mixture of rainwater, mop-water, liquid mud, human
and animal piss, blood from the barber-surgeons and spilt alcohol from the
vintners ended up here and covered the walkways and coach-ways around the
tower. As a temporary solution to the problem, Wirmiosa had laid
steppingstones across the ooze. Now Count Nevys traversed a line of these,
shuddering each time the stones wobbled under his pearl-studded,
goatskin-lined, crocodile-hide boots.
A few steppingstones behind him, an elderly footman carried a delicately
wrapped bundle that'd recently been purchased inside.
Suddenly, Gundavar's jacket descended from the sky like a broken kite.
Nevys, whose gaze was fixed on the treacherous steppingstones, didn't
notice it. But it caught the eye of the old footman, who couldn't help
turning his head to watch it before it disappeared from view behind a
A moment later, the distracted footman put a shoe not on the centre of the
next steppingstone, but on its edge. The stone trembled, the shoe slipped,
the old man lost his balance and pitched over. He vanished into the
effluent with a loud slurping noise, though he was dexterous enough to
wrench his arms upwards so that the bundle he was carrying didn't vanish
with him. A second footman who'd been waiting by the coach rushed along the
steppingstones and snatched the bundle out of his comrade's hands while
they jutted out of the muck.
Afterwards, as the old footman clambered dripping and stinking onto his
feet again, Count Nevys told him: "You almost dirtied my precious new
jacket. You're fired."
The old man pointed to the bundle now held by the other footman. Not one
drop of the ooze besmirched it. "But master," he pleaded, "I almost
dirtied it. Which means I didn't dirty it. Which means I kept it clean!"
Nevys sighed. "And I almost forgive you. I'm almost not firing you. You're
almost not unemployed. Which means I don't forgive you, I am firing you and
you are unemployed. Now get lost." He gestured ominously towards the
parapet behind which the other jacket had disappeared. "Before you're
dropped from my service in more ways than one."
Meanwhile, the jacket continued to descend. It passed the city-level
inhabited by the less prestigious guilds, where an occasional exhalation of
warm air from a chimney over a baker's oven or a blacksmith's forge might
punt it upwards. But this happened only briefly and its overall trajectory
Drifting outwards too, it arrived at the industrial district, which
occupied a wide ring encircling the lower city. Here the raw materials for
the guilds underwent their initial processing. Livestock was herded in,
slaughtered and disassembled for the butchers, tanners, saddlers, girdlers,
wool-men and chandlers. Trees were brought from the forests and trimmed and
cut into all shapes and sizes for the carpenters, coopers, wheelwrights,
clog-makers, bowyers and fletchers. Ores arrived, were stripped of
impurities and strengthened with alloys before being passed on to the
coppersmiths, tinsmiths, bladesmiths, armourers, cutlers and farriers. Smog
filled the streets between the factories, mills, foundries and
slaughterhouses, though this was frequently lit by the flaring of furnaces,
crucibles and kilns. Just before the jacket sank into the smog, it
encountered a hot sulphurous flow from a chimneystack and rafted for
several minutes on that, above and parallel to the rooftops.
Finally, the flow of chimney-spew weakened and dispersed and the jacket
dropped again. By now it'd travelled past the rim of the industrial
district and into another part of the city again. This was a hinterland
where the streets petered out and the ground seemed to fray and unravel and
become a perilous landscape of holes, gulfs, ravines and chasms, traversed
by occasional bridges and walkways. It was actually the surface of a giant
platform that'd never been completed towards its outer edges. The jacket
fluttered down and disappeared through one of the gaps, which provided
entry to the city's lowest level.
The bottom level was where Vildavos and the earth made contact. It was
where a vast, dense forest of pillars supported the city above, whilst
their bottom ends burrowed deep into the soil and rocks beneath. This
underlayer of the city was known as the Base. And to the citizens living on
the higher tiers of Vildavos, the inhabitants of the Base really seemed
Morv Reckart ran for his life.
He wasn't only running, but pushing. Before him he propelled a barrow made
out of worm-holed panels of wood, rusty strips of metal and different-sized
wheels that he'd salvaged from the Base's rubbish heaps. Its wheels wobbled
along a pathway that was also Reckart's handiwork, made of old planks that
he'd laid across the mire. The barrow was heavy with a load of manure and
Reckart felt he was hardly moving at all while he pushed it and its stiffly
turning wheels over the shifting, sinking planks.
He thought of dumping the barrow and running on without it, but was loath
to do so because he'd spent much time and effort gathering the barrow's
excrementitious contents. Behind him, meanwhile, the hooves of a beast that
might have produced some of the manure in his barrow struck the planks with
increasing loudness. This was a huge black boar with tusks the size of
Suddenly something dived down on him, whacked against his face and
momentarily blinded him. Thinking he was under attack from some sort of
predatory bird, he let go of the barrow-handles and pummelled the air
before him, trying to fight it off. One of the barrow-wheels immediately
juddered over the edge of the planks and the barrow keeled sideways and
started discharging its contents into the mire.
Reckart dragged his attacker away from his face and discovered it was made
of cloth. But he had no time to wonder where the jacket had come from, for
he realised that the crash of hooves against the planks behind him was even
louder, and he heard a gurgling squeal emerge from a tusked snout.
He grabbed the barrow, on its side and already nearly empty, and spun it
around so its tray wasn't facing out towards the mire but facing in towards
the planks. Then he levered it the rest of the way over. While he handled
the barrow, he felt a stinging pain in his right palm and, glancing down,
saw a needle partly embedded in it. A length of gold-coloured thread
trailed away from the needle, leading to a cuff of the mysterious jacket,
which was tangled now about his feet.
Meanwhile, another squeal, louder still, informed him that the boar had
caught up with him.
Reckart flung himself under the barrow before it completely toppled over
with its wheels and supports sticking up in the air. The tray closed around
him like a giant shell. But the tray's rim didn't quite touch the planks
because the boar managed to hook a tusk under it. The barrow started rising
again. More of the boar became visible: a jaw crenelated with misshapen
teeth, a flapping tongue, a warty snout, a glaring eye …
Reckart tore the needle out of his palm. He resisted the urge to aim
straight at the boar's eye because he believed, even if it was a brute, it
didn't deserve to be half-blinded. Instead he plunged the needle into the
bristles just below the eye.
The boar tore its head back and the barrow clattered fully down against the
planks with Reckart inside. But he had no sense of safety. For the next
minute, he heard a furore of pained squeals and thudding hooves. Both the
planks beneath him and the barrow around him shook as the creature crashed
against him. Then the squealing and crashing slowly receded as the boar
moved back along the walkway. Reckart waited several more minutes before he
pushed the barrow up. To his relief, his tusked foe was no longer in sight.
He found the jacket lying nearby on the planks. The thread had snapped so
that it hadn't gone dragging off behind the boar when it retreated with the
needle planted under its eye. Reckart lifted and inspected the jacket. He
was a poor man and unfamiliar with things of quality but he could still
appreciate its handsomeness. Even though it was now partly discoloured by
smoke and splattered with mire-muck, it impressed him with its embroidered
cuffs and lapels, its tasselled epaulettes and the fine silvery sheen of
The afternoon was giving way to the early evening and the light, always
slightly dim in the Base, was growing dimmer. In addition, a breeze had
started roaming between the pillars that rose to the underside of the
platform supporting the rest of the city. Reckart knew the jacket would be
useful later and knotted its sleeves around his waist.
Then he removed a shovel that'd been strapped to the barrow's side. He
knelt at the walkway's edge and probed at the surface of the mire with the
shovel-blade, trying to scoop up the spilt manure that hadn't already sunk
Count Roostar Nevys had discovered that the guilds operating in the city
included one, a small one with a select membership, calling itself the
Guild of Spies. Hiring the services of somebody from that guild was
expensive. But now, as he trod across the lacquered walnut flooring of the
restaurant's forecourt, Nevys felt that the information he'd gained
justified the expense.
For his fee, the spy had produced several dozen pages of notes. Every item
was numbered. He read them aloud to Nevys: "… 98. A childhood
accident deprived her of three teeth on the left side of her mouth, all
replaced with ivory copies. Causes a tendency to chew food on her mouth's
right side, something that should never be remarked upon. 99. Has a
fondness for nature poetry of the Seventh Era. Tries her hand at composing
poetry in the same style, although her writing tutor privately admits that
talent is lacking. 100. Keeps three pet hedgehogs. 101. Favourite colour is
lime green. 102. Once suffered from a digestive disorder causing severe
flatulence. Though disorder received medical treatment, still recurs in a
mild form. Something that, if it manifests itself, should never be remarked
And so on until, finally: "348. Like all unmarried females of the De
Marnios family, is chaste."
Nevys interrupted, "Of course she's chased. Her family's so rich and
powerful that every young buck in Vildavos who comes near them in social
status is chasing her. I'm chasing her now!"
"Chaste," clarified the spy. "As in 'virginal'. Research shows this to be
an obsession among the heads of the De Marnios family. For example. Rumours
that the late Duke De Marnios saw to it that a suitor whom he suspected of
being over-intimate with one of his nieces got his hand cut off. Or
according to a more extreme version of the rumour, got another appendage
Nevys shuddered. "The old Duke is dead now, thankfully."
"However," countered the spy, "the Duchess De Marnios still lives. And is
known to fiercely uphold the traditions of protecting the honour and
maintaining the purity of all unmarried females in the family, traditions
so valued by her late husband."
"You don't have to tell me," sighed Nevys. "Everyone knows what a monster
that old woman is."
However, as he crossed the restaurant proper, where the walnut flooring
gave way to marble tiles flecked with glinting slivers of crystal, he
decided it was worth risking the wrath of the monster when you considered
the wealth and influence you could accrue by becoming the monster's
Further on, the crystal slivers in the floor grew larger and more numerous
until they displaced the marble altogether and merged into a single,
translucent mass. A crystal table with one central stem rose from the floor
like a giant glass mushroom. Lamps were positioned on the floor around the
table with their beams directed up at it so that it shimmered magically.
Nevys entered the light and arrived by the table. He saw how its crystal
was veined with strands of silver that, entwined, ran up the inside of its
stem and then branched out through the tabletop. Near its rim, where places
had been set for the diners, the silver strands rose to the surface of the
crystal and opened like blossoming flowers. Each formed a shallow, round
tray in which were laid knives, forks and spoons, made of silver, too, and
studded along their handles with small rubies. The dark-red hue of the
rubies matched the dark-red wine that resided in a massive decanter at the
One effect of the light from the encircling lamps was that the restaurant
beyond them was obscured. Though he couldn't clearly see the other tables
in the vicinity, he knew they'd be populated by an entourage of
ladies-in-waiting, bodyguards and servants. But he had the illusion of
being alone with the person who was waiting for him at the table.
She wore a flowing lime-green dress and, when she smiled in greeting, he
thought he saw an unnatural glint from the teeth on the left side of her
mouth. Nevys resisted the instinct to take her hand, bow and kiss the back
of it. The man from the Guild of Spies had warned him to avoid bodily
contact with her during their first meeting. "The De Marnios family have
different notions of propriety from the rest of the nobility. Touch her
even fleetingly and they'll think you've dishonoured her. And your cause
will be lost."
Before they took their seats at the crystal table, Lady Etheelia gazed at
him and said, "What a fabulous jacket you're wearing."
Nevys felt pleased and not a little relieved at this. It suggested that the
vast amount of money he'd invested in the operation was starting to bring
results. He held forward an arm, careful not to touch her with it, and let
her inspect the silvery fabric of the sleeve. "Isn't it? It's made from the
hide of a janostovore."
At the same moment, Morv Reckart trudged close to the edge of the mire with
his jacket of janostovore hide pulled tight around him. He welcomed the
warmth it provided, but as the wind blew into the Base and keened through
its forest of pillars, he wished he had the warmth of several garments
The day had ended badly. He'd brought his barrow to the pig-dung lagoon
only to find that its proprietor, Shana Leedrum, had left a quarter-hour
earlier. A single guard remained, a big stupid-faced man with a bald head
but profusely hairy ears and eyebrows. He was posted at the entrance of the
huge ramshackle structure, half-shed and half-marquee, that contained the
lagoon of festering manure. The structure had a tapering roof that trapped
the gas released from the manure and channelled it into a series of
vertical pipes higher up. These pipes rose to the underside of the floor of
the industrial district.
More precisely, they rose to the floor underneath Vildavos's Customs
Building, which was in the centre of the district. The arrival in the city
of every bucket of ore, every log of wood, every sack of vegetables, every
sheaf of grain, every beast in the livestock-herds, was painstakingly
recorded in this building so that the appropriate entry duties could be
calculated and charged. For the building to keep pace with the vast,
ceaseless traffic of materials coming into Vildavos, an army of clerks
toiled there day and night. This necessitated the burning of lamps from
sunset to sunrise. The unedifying but flammable gas rising off the shit in
the lagoon below powered these lamps. For Shana Leedrum, it was a lucrative
arrangement. She liked to boast: "The stench flows up to those pen-pushers'
offices and the money flows down to my pockets!"
The guard had to speak loudly to be heard above the rumpus of squealing and
grunting coming from Shana's pig-herd, which grubbed about in pens behind
the lagoon and provided it with the bulk of its contents. Her pigs were
unconnected with the wild boars that in recent years had started to
infiltrate the Base from the surrounding countryside. From those boars
Eckart eked a living, gathering their ordure for Shana too, to add to that
already in the lagoon. "She took the key to the cashbox with her. I can't
give you anything." The guard glanced contemptuously into the barrow. "Not
that what you brought looks worth anything."
Reckart knew the amount of manure he'd retrieved from the mire after the
boar-attack was pitiful. Yet had Shana been there, she'd surely have paid
him something, if only as an advance sum for the extra loads he'd promise
to bring tomorrow. Tonight, though, he was penniless.
The guard allowed Reckart to leave the barrow for the night by the lagoon's
entrance and, unencumbered, he set off looking for shelter.
There were compartments in the Base, hollowed-out cavities in the sides of
massive pillars, shelters built under the rusted staircases that ascended
to the industrial district, where you could bed down with some insulation
against the cold and wind. But the landlords who owned those compartments
wouldn't grant a night's tenancy for free. For even the filthiest,
flimsiest one, you had to pay, which Reckart couldn't do.
The Base was dark now. His feet sometimes sank alarmingly as, unable to see
where the ground ended and the mire began, he unwittingly crossed the line
between them. The wind accompanied him like a troublesome ghost, moaning
into his ears, pawing at his hair, kneading his flesh.
Then ahead he noticed a glimmering speck which, as he made his way towards
it, became a fuzzy yellow-orange ball and finally a fire, consuming a mound
of planks and sticks and expelling rags of flame up into the night. He also
noticed a constant cranking noise and a rhythmical splashing of water.
These sounds were explained when he saw beyond the fire a wooden waterwheel
half-submerged in a channel. The wheel turned as malodorous brown water
slopped down onto its blades from the mouth of a thick pipe suspended above
it. Probably the pipe originated up in the industrial district and probably
the energy produced by the wheel was directed back there. After helping to
turn the wheel, the water was carried away in the channel towards the mire.
Reckart wondered if this wastewater draining into the earth had created the
He found a part of the channel that was narrow enough to jump across. This
brought him close to the building that the waterwheel was attached to. Its
door was locked and its windows were shuttered and, presumably, the cogs,
gears and belts of the wheel's attendant mechanism were inside it. A dozen
bodies lay huddled at the bottom of its front wall, within the heat and
light radiating from the fire and covered by a tatty patchwork of old
blankets, coats and sacks. Tangled grey hair protruded from under the
makeshift bedclothes and bony, veiny hands clutched at the bedclothes and
held them down in the wind. Old-timers, Reckart decided, veterans of the
Base who'd somehow survived its bitter nights for years.
A voice rasped at him from the direction of the fire. "Hey, you! Who said
you could join us?"
Reckart saw two more people hunkered on the ground close to the flames. One
was an old man, wrapped in rags and with a sunken lower face that showed he
hadn't one tooth left in his gums. The other was a middle-aged woman whose
grey hair was tied back in a tail behind her head and whose attire
consisted of a sack with three holes torn along its edges for her arms and
head to stick out of.
Reckart replied, "Nobody said I could join you. You don't have to let me
join you. But I'd be grateful if you did."
The woman scrutinised him. "You don't seem so down on your luck. Not in
that fancy jacket."
"It fell out of the sky."
"I didn't buy it, I just found it. I have no money at all. So if I could
join your little tribe tonight and share the warmth of your fire …"
The woman gestured towards the old man. The firelight glinted in his rheumy
eyes and on a film of drool and snot covering his chin. "Well, it's Goort's
turn to do guard duty. Only I don't think he's up to it. He's on his last
legs, the poor old boy. So if you could do his shift for him … we
might permit you to sleep here for the rest of the night."
"Guard duty?" Reckart felt uneasy. "What needs to be guarded against?"
"Boars? I thought they hunted only on the far side of the mire. Surely they
don't come this far into the Base?"
"Oh, they do nowadays. Now-a-nights, anyway. They're getting more numerous.
And bigger, hungrier and eviller. Just the other week, a bastard hog
grabbed one of our friends while he was asleep and dragged him off into the
dark and ate him." Then the woman stood a row of candles along the ground.
They were stunted, misshapen things that looked like they'd been fashioned
from mud and grease rather than wax. She lifted a burning stick out of the
fire and lit the first candle. "When that reaches the bottom, your shift is
over. Come and wake me and I'll assign someone else as guard. And then you
can sleep here."
Suddenly she looked at him fiercely. "But don't try anything funny, like
burning the candle away at both ends to shorten your shift. I'm perceptive.
I'll know what you've been up to." From under the hem of her sack-dress she
produced a knife with a long, curved blade. "And stay awake during your
shift. If I get woken by some bugger of a boar hoking around the camp
because you dozed off and failed to alert us … I'll make sure you never wake up at all."
Reckart believed her.
Then the woman and man bedded down among their comrades. Reckart positioned
himself so that the fire was behind him and the darkness cloaking the mire
was in front. Out of that darkness blew the wind, gnawing his face and
hands, numbing the rest of him. The layers of his newly acquired jacket and
other clothes gave little protection now and the fire provided only a tiny
ember of warmth at his back, its heat swirling off in the opposite
direction with the wind. But he remained at his post, determined to honour
the bargain he'd made with these people.
Ahead of him, he heard distant snorts and squeals. It was true. The beasts
were working their way around the mire and deeper into the Base. Who, he
wondered, owned the mire and the surrounding ground? Why hadn't they done
something to stop the boars' encroachment?
Suddenly it occurred to him that his new jacket should have pockets. He
manoeuvred the stiff, cold fingers of his left hand under a flap and into a
slit on the jacket's left side. But that was all it was, a slit. The maker
of the jacket, the person who'd left the needle and thread hanging from it,
hadn't had time to install a pocket on the inside.
Then he fumbled his right hand under another flap and into another slit on
the jacket's right side. It entered a pouch of fabric. The jacket had one
proper pocket at least.
This pocket, Reckart discovered, was warm. He let his hand rest until his
fingers felt thawed and pliable again and then pushed the hand deeper. If
anything, the lower depths of the pocket were warmer still. And still he
hadn't located the bottom of it. His hand descended through what seemed a
tube of material. By now the warmth was such that he could have been poking
the hand through a hole in a wall and into a luxuriously heated room.
With a shock, he realised that his right arm had disappeared into the
pocket as far as the elbow. Yet nothing had emerged into view past the
jacket's hem, which was where his hand, wrapped in pocket-lining, should be
Despite his alarm, he couldn't help wondering how much more of his arm this
strange pocket could accommodate. So he pushed it in even further.
After the sixth course, which consisted of lobster tails doused in garlic
and lemon-flavoured butter, crowned with slices of goat's cheese and served
on a bed of corn and tomatoes, Roostar Nevys deployed his secret weapon.
"I have no idea why," he said, "but for some reason tonight I find myself
thinking of a verse from one of my favourite poems." Then in sonorous voice
he recited: "Oh, timid warrior of the meadow-side… I fathom not your
wish to hide… Armoured dense with spikes and shards… You send
the fiercest foe homewards …"
Delightedly, Etheelia exclaimed, "But that sounds like a nature poem from
the Seventh Era!"
"Of course. Seventh Era nature poetry is by the far the best poetry. I
wouldn't waste my breath reciting a poem from any other Era or genre. But I
also like the verse because that timid warrior of the meadow-side, armoured
with spikes and shards, is obviously a hedgehog. Which is my favourite
"You like hedgehogs?"
"Absolutely," purred Nevys. "They're splendid little fellows!"
Determined to get his money's worth out of that man from the Guild of
Spies, Nevys had sent him that afternoon to a library. "Find me some
Seventh Era doggerel about hedgehogs. Be quick, so that I have time to
While Etheelia gushed about the wonderful coincidences of him loving
Seventh Era nature poetry, which she loved too, and loving hedgehogs, which
she kept as pets, the Count basked in self-admiration. This evening was a
testament to his genius. He'd planned it perfectly. It was going sublimely
Indeed, he was enjoying it more than he'd anticipated. Although Lady
Etheelia De Marnios had a disconcerting habit of chewing all her food on
the right side of her mouth, and although at one point between the third
and fourth courses he thought he heard a flatulent rumble from somewhere,
the woman was unexpectedly attractive. She must be attractive, he reasoned,
because she was causing a physical reaction in him. While he sat at the
table a short but still-prudent distance from her, he was aware of
something stirring in his lap.
Then Nevys realised that whatever was stirring wasn't doing so inside his
trousers. It was stirring higher up and to the right, inside his jacket. He
looked down and saw the flap over the right-side pocket suddenly pop open
and a hand emerge beneath it.
The hand, which was caked in dirt and had crescents of grime lodged under
its fingernails, was followed by an arm. Enclosing the arm was a sleeve,
made of a silvery fabric that looked worryingly familiar. This snaked away
from Nevys's jacket and crossed the gap separating him from Lady Etheelia.
And before Nevys could collect his wits and respond, the rogue hand managed
to land on one of Etheelia's green-swathed thighs.
Etheelia had seen nothing because the hand and arm were concealed by the
rim of the crystal tabletop. But she gaped downwards the instant something
touched her. Already the hand was emmeshed in the folds of her dress, but
she saw the silvery sleeve. She raised her head again, contemplated Nevys
for a moment, and shrieked, "You brute!"
Then she sprang up from her chair and left the hand grasping in mid-air.
"You utter brute," she continued. "My mother shall hear about this and when
she does, I assure you, she'll see to it that you're destroyed!" And she
flounced away from the table, out of the ring of lamplight and into the
Finally, Nevys managed to do something. He seized one of the jewelled
silver forks off the tabletop and rammed it into the phantom hand. Blood
welled as the fork-prongs skewered it. Immediately after that, the hand,
which now had the fork embedded in it, and the sleeved arm shot back into
the pocket from which they'd impossibly appeared. The jacket tussled as if
a small animal was struggling inside it and then became still.
Nevys grabbed hold of the fabric but it was suddenly flat and limp. The
pocket was empty again.
Meanwhile, a commotion was taking place around him. Chairs scraped along
the floor as people jumped out of them. Footsteps clattered back and forth
and voices babbled in dismay. Clearly, not only was Lady Etheelia upset,
but her retainers outside the lamplight were too. Then a woman whom Nevys
took to be a lady-in-waiting strode up to the table.
He rose to receive her. "There's been a dreadful misunderstanding. Your
mistress thinks I behaved inappropriately but I didn't. It was something
else. I can't explain the phenomenon, but …"
This woman, however, wasn't a lady-in-waiting, but a member of a squad of
bodyguards to whom the Duchess De Marnios had entrusted her daughter's
safety. She drew back her arm and then smashed her fist into Nevys's face.
Cartilage snapped, flecks of blood leapt up in front of his eyes and his
vision dimmed. He toppled backwards onto the unsympathetic hardness of the
restaurant's crystal floor.
Reckart had lifted up the right side of his jacket so that he could force
his whole right arm into the pocket. Yet there was still no sign of that
arm on the other side of the fabric. It went through the slit of the pocket
No longer did he feel the tube of pocket-lining. Instead, his hand and arm
seemed to pass through warm, empty air. Then the hand landed somewhere. It
was suddenly amid folds of velvety cloth while something firm and rounded
was tangible beneath them. But almost immediately, the cloth and the firm
shape underneath were snatched from his grasp and his hand was left
paddling about in space again.
And then something sharp and cold seemed almost to split his hand in half.
Reckart felt such hideous pain that for a few moments his throat was
paralysed and he couldn't cry out. He wrenched his arm back out of the
pocket but struggled to free his hand because the sharp thing was now stuck
in it and tangled in the pocket-lining.
Finally, his hand came out, drenched in blood and with a metal shaft
protruding from the back of it. Though the pain had fogged his eyes, he
discerned the shaft as an ornamental silver handle with five small red
stones studded along it.
Then he wondered if the fog was worsening and his eyesight was getting more
blurred. In the firelight, he saw more red stones on the silver handle. An
instant ago, there'd been five of them. Now he counted seven - two extra
ones hovered on either side of it. He lowered the bleeding hand but the two
new stones remained where they were, floating in the darkness ahead. He
realised they weren't red stones but a pair of eyes reflecting the glow of
The huge bristly head in which those eyes were embedded thrust itself out
of the darkness. Jutting from the flesh under one eye was the end of a
needle, glinting in the firelight too. Reckart suddenly wasn't mute
anymore. He vented a mighty scream, partly in fright at the boar's
appearance and partly, at last, because of the savage pain in his hand.
The volume of his scream was enough to intimidate even the boar and it
backed away a step. This gave Reckart a chance to seize, with his uninjured
hand, the greasy candle that was marking the passing of his shift. He flung
the candle at the beast's snout and it backed off a step more. Then Reckart
twisted around and snatched a burning wooden slat out of the fire and use
that to beat at the boar's snout.
But it retreated no further. It'd got over its alarm at the noise and the
flames, and now a stronger feeling seemed to possess it. Reckart detected
hatred in its glowering eyes, hatred for him, the human who'd hurt it so
badly earlier today. It readied itself to charge, to rend him apart, to get
The boar didn't get a chance to charge, however. Whooping and hollering,
the community of old people who'd been sleeping below the wall suddenly
swarmed around it and flogged it with burning planks and sticks that they'd
plucked out of the fire too. The beast abandoned its plans of fileting
Reckart and turned and fled into the darkness.
Once the boar had disappeared, the woman who'd appointed Reckart as guard
approached him. She noticed his maimed right hand and said, "Oh, nasty. It
got hold of you, the big bastard!"
During the hurly-burly while the old-timers had fought off the boar, some
instinct had made Reckart yank the jewelled fork out of his hand and
conceal it within the waistband of his trousers. Now he thought he'd better
play along with the woman's misassumption. "Yes," he said. The pain muffled
his voice to a whisper and he wondered if he was going to faint. "I can't
believe how fast it was … it shot out of the dark and before I could
even yell, it had my hand between its jaws."
The woman turned and summoned the toothless old man with the moist eyes and
chin. "Make yourself useful, Goort. Gather a bundle of grime-weed and mash
it up into a pot of balm." She addressed Reckart again. "One problem with
them hogs is the filth they have in their mouths. They don't just bite
people. They poison them too."
After a few minutes, Reckart felt slightly more inured to the pain and
decided he wasn't going to pass out. Then the old man doddered back to
them, carrying an armful of scrawny plants whose leaves had serrated edges.
"Goort knows how to manufacture a balm using this weed which grows
hereabouts," explained the woman. "With luck, it'll neutralise any poison
before it takes hold of you." She saw scepticism in Reckart's face and
added, "Don't worry. Long ago, before he fell on hard times, old Goort was
a member of the Apothecaries' Guild."
"It'd surprise you how many talents we have living down in the Base.
Anyhow, should his balm fail to work, you still needn't worry. If your hand
becomes poisoned, and threatens to poison the rest of you, I'll do the
necessary." The woman unfastened a flap at the side of her sack-dress and
pulled it open. Hanging in a row along the back of the flap were
half-a-dozen knives of different lengths and shapes, including the
curve-bladed one she'd brandished earlier. "I used to be in the Butchers'
Guild myself. Still carry the tools of my old trade."
Since the jacket had wounded him, not the boar, Reckart didn't have to
worry about complications arising from a boar-bite. But still he played
along. He met the woman's stare and said, "I'm so lucky to have met you."
As the light of dawn crept through the Base, Reckart picked himself up from
among the bodies huddling and dozing beside the wall. A guard, who looked
nearly as old as Goort, sat snuffling by the now-consumed fire. The wind
had almost died but nonetheless it stirred a few grey plumes from the pile
Reckart passed the guard and the ashes and skirted around the mire's edge,
crossing the long thin shadows that formed behind the pillars as more and
more sunlight found its way in. Finally, he stopped and turned. The
building with the waterwheel was still visible from this spot, but he was
surely out of view of the people there. He saw no human beings elsewhere.
Then he removed the silvery jacket. He had difficulty peeling off the right
sleeve because his right hand was encased in a bundle of dirty rags. Oozing
from between the rags was a green mush, the balm that Goort had made the
previous night out of the plants the woman had called 'grime-weed'. In the
morning light, Reckart noticed how clumps of that grime-weed grew copiously
around him, both on the firm ground and on the surface of the mire.
Though the boar hadn't bitten him, he reasoned there was no harm in keeping
the balm applied. After all, those fork-prongs might have been dipped in
something poisonous in the spectral realm beyond the bottom of the pocket.
Once the jacket was off him, Reckart thought carefully about what'd
happened last night. He'd reached into the garment and retrieved a
jewel-encrusted implement that no doubt was extremely valuable. But his
hand had come back with the implement stuck in it. If he dared to grope
into that pocket again, what other precious items might he find? But what
other vicious injuries might he sustain? Would his hand return at all? He
had a vision of him wrenching his arm out of the pocket and finding a
tattered, squirting stump where his hand had been.
He decided the jacket was a diabolical trap, baited with riches but
designed to maim and scar its owner. "I did it once," he declared. "And
Then he dropped the jacket and started stamping down on it so that it
disappeared piece by piece into the soft, pliable soil. He didn't stop
until most of it was buried and only a few edges of fabric, dirt-black now
rather than silvery, still protruded above ground. Reckart hoped this would
be the jacket's last resting place. Even if someone were passing and
noticed it, they'd think it was a foetid piece of cloth discarded by one of
the Base's many vagrants. They wouldn't try to drag it out of the ground
That done, Reckart took the fork from under his waistband and began his
next task, which was to prise the five rubies out of its handle.
Later, he arrived at the lagoon and had an audience with Shana Leedrum.
"Your hand's a mess," she observed. He wondered if her voice contained a
trace of concern. "And what's that green stuff dripping from it? It looks
"It's a healing balm made out of weed. But that's unimportant." With his
uninjured hand he produced one of the rubies. "I've found something that
looks valuable. I want to meet a dealer I can bargain a price with."
He had to wait because Shana was in the process of filling and lighting her
pipe. Briefly, the smoke from the ground-up mint in the pipe-bowl ousted
the stench of pig-dung surrounding the lagoon. When she was ready, she took
the red stone and examined it. He watched her face, long and narrow under a
crop of spiky blonde hair, with eyes that were deep-set, blue and
inscrutable. She must have felt surprised but she showed no reaction.
"You know who the salvage dealers are in the Base."
"And I know they're completely untrustworthy. If I appeared with something
like this, they wouldn't think twice about sticking a knife in me and
taking it. Shana, I need to meet a proper gem merchant. Somebody I can sell
to directly." He glanced at the expanse high above them, which served both
as the Base's ceiling and as the industrial district's floor. "There must
be ones upstairs."
"Of course there are," replied Shana. "Everything flows into the city.
Ores, timber, livestock ... Precious stones flow in too, so there are
merchants keen to snap them up as they arrive."
"I know a few who have premises in the neighbourhood of the Customs
Building. They're your best bet, I'd say. They must be fairly honest if
they aren't afraid to operate within sight of that place. Doesn't mean they
won't drive a hard bargain, though. If you're not careful, you'll end up
getting a pittance for that ruby."
Reckart thought of the boar he'd faced twice during the past day and night.
"I think I'm up to dealing with them."
"There's a more fundamental problem." Shana stepped back, surveyed him and
grimaced. "You won't be allowed through their doors. Not looking and
smelling like that. The state of you! Actually, I'd be reluctant to let you
into the pens to fraternise with my pigs."
"And I don't suppose you could help me out? Provide me with a bath? Lend me
a clean set of clothes?"
Shana drew on her pipe and blew out a jet of minty smoke. "I suppose a bath
and some clean clothes wouldn't be beyond me." Her voice hardened. "But
listen, Morv Reckart. Whatever price you get for that stone, I want 30
percent of it. Make sure the merchant writes the details of the transaction
on a sheet of paper and marks it with his business stamp. Do we have a
"We have a deal."
Reckart was relieved he hadn't told her about the other four rubies.
A week later, Roostar Nevys made a second visit to the tower containing
Wirmiosa Hoag's tailoring business.
By the second visit, Nevys's demeanour and appearance had dramatically
changed. He didn't stride into the tower with his head high, but crept in
with his head bowed. His outfit no longer suggested somebody whom, a week
earlier, Wirmiosa had thought of as 'one of the city's most talked-about,
fashionable and eligible young nobles'. Now his clothes were dishevelled
Nevys carried a bundle that he dumped on a countertop in the lobby. As luck
would have it, the person behind the counter was Wirmiosa herself. "I'd
like to sell this back to you," said Nevys. Even his voice had undergone a
deterioration and was low and furtive.
The paper the bundle was wrapped in was crumpled and torn but it still bore
the crest of Wirmiosa's business. Through a tear in the paper she saw the
gleam of silvery fabric. "We make and sell garments here," she replied. "We
don't buy them."
Nevys countered, "But I'm willing to accept far less than what I paid for
it. Half the sum, say. You can buy it back from me and sell it to someone
else for the full price. That way, you make a 50 percent profit."
Wirmiosa picked apart the flaps of paper and inspected the jacket. Then she
repeated, "We don't buy clothes here. Sorry."
It seemed then that some of Nevys's old self-importance returned. He
straightened up and spoke more loudly. "You can't be serious. I spent more
on that jacket than anybody else in Vildavos has spent on a garment this
year. And now you reject the chance to make half of that fortune again?"
"Impossible. Besides …" She poked a fingertip against one of the
jacket's pockets. "Look here. A bloodstain. Even if I did buy clothes, I
wouldn't buy this."
"Well, just wash the blood out!"
"There's no point trying. When a janostovore hide acquires a stain like
that, it's permanent. It can't be washed out. That's an unfortunate
characteristic of the material."
Now wholly back to his old self, Nevys smashed his fists onto the
countertop and roared, "What? I pay you thousands for this a week ago and
now you tell me it's worthless because it's acquired a tiny bloodspot?
Lies! Lies and balderdash!"
At that point Wirmiosa Hoag stepped back from the counter, raised a hand
and made an emergency signal. In response to her signal, half-a-dozen
apprentices stopped whatever they were doing, hurried across the lobby,
congregated around Nevys and seized hold of him. Nevys roared even more and
tried to fight them off, but the apprentices were too numerous. With at
least one person gripping each of his limbs, he was carried towards the
Wirmiosa, meanwhile, took a deep breath and glanced at a letter from the
Guild of Costume Makers that'd arrived a few days ago and been pegged up in
a prominent position on a lobby-wall, so that all her staff could see it.
Copies of this letter had been sent from the guild's headquarters to its
entire membership. Furthermore, she'd heard rumours that similar letters
had been sent from every guild to every guild-member in Vildavos. The
rumours intimated that these letters had been sent on the orders of the
Duchess De Marnios.
The letter on the wall stated bluntly that no transactions of any sort were
to be made with Roostar Nevys, formerly Count Roostar Nevys. Anyone
caught defying this edict would be expelled from the guild immediately.
The apprentices brought their struggling load out onto the doorstep of the
tower. Then they flung Roostar Nevys into the middle of the ooze that'd
accumulated over the ground outside. No sooner had Nevys plopped down into
the ooze than Wirmiosa Hoag appeared on the doorstep behind the
apprentices, holding the jacket, which was wrapped up again in its paper.
She flung the bundle after him.
An old man loitered on a nearby steppingstone. This was the elderly footman
whom Nevys had sacked a week ago. Having heard about his ex-master's fall
from grace, the old man had secretly followed him for the past few days,
watching for an opportunity to get revenge. This seemed like an opportunity
now. Before Nevys could gather himself up, the old man waded across to him,
stepped on his head and pressed it deep into the filthy effluent.
As he walked way, he said apologetically over his shoulder, "Oh. Sorry.
Didn't see you there."
Wirmiosa Hoag and her apprentices withdrew into the lobby and shut the
doors again. One of those who'd helped to eject Roostar Nevys was Gundavar
Shyl. While the other apprentices returned to their duties, Wirmiosa made a
point of detaining him.
Gravely, she said, "Now do you understand why it's a bad idea to make two jackets out of one janostovore hide?"
Two years afterwards, the same Duchess de Marnios who'd engineered Nevys's
sudden and spectacular fall was delivering a speech. Her audience filled a
courtyard on the city's highest tier, the region of towers, spires and
minarets that was home to its aristocracy.
Above the pillared courtyard wall behind her podium rippled the pennant
that had the city's motto written along it. At the conclusion of her
speech, the Duchess lifted a hand towards that pennant. "Thus, the person
we honour today is a fine example of what we say in Vildavos: 'A rich man,
an opportunity seized, a poor one, an opportunity missed.' Two years ago,
he was a poor man scrabbling to survive in the darkness and grime of our
city's lowest level. Yet he didn't succumb to bitterness and despair. He
worked hard. He saved money, meagre though his earnings were. He kept his
eyes open for opportunities. And through hard work, thrift and
watchfulness, he's enjoyed an astonishing ascent.
"Today, he's a major figure in the Illumination Company, which is
revolutionising working practises in our industrial district. Not content
with that, he's branched into other areas too. He's involved in the
medical, meat and rug-making trades. I even hear rumours that very soon he
plans to sell jewellery."
The Duchess paused for a moment, then quipped: "While I applaud this young
man's determination to seize opportunities, I only hope that he leaves some
opportunities unseized for the rest of us." The courtyard resounded with
sycophantic laughter. "So it's my pleasure to present this year's award for
Most Promising Young Entrepreneur in Vildavos to Morvindar Reckart.
She didn't actually present the award because it was too heavy for her. A
servant handed it over instead. The award was vaguely cone-shaped and
wildly over-elaborate. It attempted, unsuccessfully, to squeeze all the
features of chaotic, sprawling Vildavos into a bronze sculpture two feet
high and one foot across at the bottom.
Once the ceremony had ended, the Duchess glided over to Reckart and asked,
"Young man, would you care to join myself and a few of my family for food
Diplomatically, Reckart replied, "That's exceedingly kind of you, madam,
but unfortunately I must return to the city's lower regions immediately.
Certain aspects of my businesses require attention." He sighed. "That's the
disadvantage of being a successful entrepreneur. Never any time for
pleasure. However …" He glanced towards a cluster of towers rising
over the courtyard's southwestern corner. "I'm considering buying an abode
in this area of the city, which means we may become neighbours. And I'd be
delighted to accept your offer of hospitality then."
The Duchess watched him totter off through the crowd, his arms straining
with the burdensome award. It seemed unbecoming that he didn't have a
servant to carry it for him but, she reminded herself, until recently the
poor young man hadn't been able to afford servants. Indeed, so immersed had
he been in his work, he probably hadn't even thought about hiring
servants. But that would change. Now that he was wealthy, he'd gradually
become civilised. Indeed, though he wasn't civilised yet, he already seemed
quite charming …
Then the Duchess thought of her daughter Etheelia, who was still moping
after her humiliation two years ago at the hands of that revolting upstart
Roostar Nevys. It was time for Etheelia to pull herself together and find a
spouse, a proper, virtuous one. Might this Morvindar Reckart be the answer?
He didn't have an aristocratic title, admittedly, but the payment of some
money would soon rectify that. Why, three-quarters of Vildavos's supposed
aristocracy had no real claims to their titles. They'd secretly bought
their duke-ships, count-ships and baron-ships when they'd accrued enough
Reckart, meanwhile, waited for his coach beside a cobbled roadway that cut
through the courtyard. His arms ached and the highest point of the award,
which sported a tiny, wiggling bronze flag, scratched against his chin. He
recalled the Duchess's speech and decided it'd been nonsense. He hadn't
succeeded because of hard work, thrift or watchfulness, but because of
supernaturally good luck. He'd stuck his hand into the pocket of that
mysterious jacket and found five precious stones. Those stones had produced
the money that allowed him to buy a stake in Shana Leedrum's pig-dung
lagoon. And when that proved lucrative, he'd been able to make other
investments that proved lucrative too. His successes could all be traced
back to the jacket that one day had dropped magically out of the sky.
The coach arrived, the name THE VILDAVOS ILLUMINATION COMPANY inscribed on
its side. Reckart managed to open the door, heave the award inside and
heave himself inside too before the coach-driver could clamber down and
assist. The coach's interior was murky with mint-flavoured smoke, seeping
out of a pipe-bowl whose stem was clamped in Shana Leedrum's mouth. Reckart
shifted the award onto the seat opposite her and sank down beside it. The
smoke's aroma was strong but nonetheless the coach contained a faint smell
Shana removed the pipe-stem from her mouth and pointed it towards the
award. "What's that? It looks like a giant solidified dollop of shit."
"It's my award. It's a bronze representation of Vildavos."
"You're joking. Vildavos looks nothing like that."
"Well, I suppose it could look like it. If you were standing a long
way away and viewing the city on the horizon. And if you squeezed the
image, and elongated it …"
The coach rattled out of the courtyard. "Huh," said Shana. "Twaddle. Not
that I'd expect anything else from that gathering of the supposed great and
good we've just left behind."
Reckart knew that instinctively he agreed with her but pragmatically he had
to disagree. "Well, it was nice of them to invite me here today. And
it pays to be polite, not to offend anyone. Especially this lot, with the
power they wield."
"Crawler," retorted Shana. "And what's this I hear about you buying a
residence here? Determined to move up in the world, are you? Us common folk
in the lower levels not good enough for you anymore?"
"As I said, this lot wield power. I need to be close to them. To
know what's going on and jump in if opportunities arise. I can't do that if
I'm down in the Base the whole time." But even as Reckart tried to justify
his move to the top end of the city, he realised he'd actually miss the
bottom end of it. Unbelievably, he foresaw himself feeling homesick for the
The coach trundled down steep narrow streets that twisted and occasionally
spiralled as they descended from one level of Vildavos to the next. It
negotiated ramps and inclines and at one point had to use a huge, shaky
lift-like contraption that could lower or hoist a half-dozen vehicles and
their horses at a time. It left the region of the aristocracy and passed
through the region of the bureaucrats and then through those of the middle
and lower bourgeoisie and of the higher and lower guilds. It finally
creaked down into the industrial district. The day was nearing its end and
flecks of artificial light were starting to appear across the
neighbourhood. Not yet in the immense block of the Customs Building, but in
the smaller structures around it.
Shana said grudgingly, "I suppose you were shrewd when you spotted
that opportunity in the gem merchant's shop I sent you to."
"All his staff were squinting and fumbling about. Blighted by bad eyesight.
The boss told me why. They needed to inspect the gemstones very carefully,
to be sure of their value, and it was a never-ending business. The stones
arrived during the night as well as during the day, so much of their work
had to be done by candlelight, which had ruined their vision."
Shana shook her head. "And I didn't think of it. I was so pleased with
myself getting that deal with the Customs Building. It didn't occur to me
that we could run side-pipes off the big one and light up other businesses.
Of course, as soon as that merchant got his gaslight, all of them wanted
"It's not only customs clerks and gem workers. The industrial district's
changing, Shana. Now they want people working through the night as well as
through the day. There's going to be more and more demand for light."
"That means we'll need a hell of a lot more shit."
"Don't worry. We'll find all the shit necessary."
The coach reached an opening in the floor of the industrial district where
a broad, gently angled ramp gave access to the city's last and lowest
level. The horses took it down the ramp and eased it onto an area of
freshly gravelled ground at the bottom. Shana grimaced. "I always feel
uncomfortable arriving in the Base in this thing. People here must think
"People here think no such thing. They have proper jobs and wages for the
first time, thanks to us."
They climbed out and the driver directed the horses and vehicle towards a
newly built coach-house. Once his feet were on the ground, Reckart realised
he'd left the Vildavos-shaped award on the coach-seat. He decided to
collect it later and immediately forgot about it.
A path, also made of newly deposited gravel, led towards the shed-marquee
containing the lagoon. Running alongside the path was a high fence with
many groups of boars roaming the great miry area on its far side. Reckart
and Shana walked, not to the lagoon, but to another new building, a white
stone one, standing on the opposite side of the path next to the fence. The
new building exuded a reek of blood and meat and three butchered and
skinned boar-carcasses hung on hooks outside its end wall. A team were in
the process of lowering a fourth carcass into a large wheelbarrow,
supervised by a woman with grey hair. All the workers wore smocks and
once-white, now-bloodstained aprons, although the woman also had on a
utility belt festooned with six different-sized and different-shaped
This was the same woman who'd given Reckart permission to sit by her
group's campfire two years ago. He hailed her. "All going well, Grushnan?"
Grushnan's voice was breathless but happy. It suggested someone who was
extremely busy, but busy doing something they loved. "Oh yes. We'll get
some lovely cuts of meat off these darlings!"
"Removed and carved with your customary skill, no doubt."
Beside him, Shana reflected, "I thought you were insane when you tracked
down the people who owned the mire and insisted on buying it from them."
"It was a bargain. Those people didn't even know they owned land in
the Base. They were amazed when I had a lawyer find the deed and dust it
down for them. The money I offered was like a windfall for them. Money for
something they had no idea existed!"
"And with boar-meat suddenly becoming a great culinary fashion in Vildavos …"
"I keep telling you, that was plain luck. My original plan had been just to
use the mire and thereabouts as somewhere to keep the boars and gather
their dung for the lagoon. Nothing more."
"Well, the meat's certainly making money. But this idea of yours about
selling jewellery? Boar jewellery?"
"We have piles of boar-tusks now so it makes sense to use them. Just as we
did with the hides, turning them into rugs. And up in that courtyard, did
you notice how many of the ladies were dressed in white? White's a
fashionable colour at the moment. So if we carve white tusks into white
pieces of jewellery, they'll surely be popular as accessories."
Shana whistled. "I'm glad I'm not you, Reckart. This endless planning and
scheming and innovating. It can't be good for you. You need to give your
head a rest sometime. Otherwise you'll use up all your brainpower and one
day you'll discover you've turned into a turnip." She gestured towards the
shed-marquee. "I'm going to check on the lagoon. Are you coming?"
"I'll join you later. I want to make sure all's well at the mill first."
Reckart kept walking. The path came to an end but the fence continued, and
he followed it until he came to a corner. Around the corner, outside the
next length of fencing, the ground had been ploughed into long furrows.
From these sprouted rows of scrawny green weeds whose leaves had sharp
ragged edges. Here and there people were pulling up clumps of the biggest
weeds and cramming them into sacks. An elderly man who'd been overseeing
the weed-pickers saw Reckart approach and hurried across to welcome him.
"Hello, Goort. How is everything?"
Goort was different from the pathetic, dribbling creature he'd been two
years before. For one thing he was equipped with teeth, a set that'd been
carved out of boar-tusk and allowed him to talk properly. Indeed, he'd
become garrulous. "Oh, everything's fine, Master Reckart, exceedingly fine.
The lads and lasses are just pulling up a final crop before sunset.
Something to keep the mill-wheels chewing into the night!"
Past the crop of grime-weed stood the building with the waterwheel, by
which Grushnan, Goort and their friends had used to sleep. That building
was another of Reckart's acquisitions. The giant cogs inside it mashed the
weeds into the balm that, two years ago, Goort had applied to Reckart's
hand after the boar-attack. Now they produced the balm on an industrial
scale, filling hundreds of jars with it every day and selling it to the
apothecaries in the city above as a treatment for everything. Not just for
bites and cuts, but for bruises, rashes, burns, sore throats, bad chests,
backache, earache, warts, pimples, wrinkles, dandruff, baldness and
Then Reckart heard a frenzy of snorting, slobbering and wheezing noises
close by. Suddenly fearful, Goort stared past him and exclaimed, "Oh Master
Reckart! It's come to see you!"
The great area of ground encompassing the mire didn't quite extend to the
nearest section of fence. Immediately on its other side was a relatively
small enclosure with a single inhabitant. Reckart had ordered the
inhabitant be kept separate from the other boars, which roamed the main
area with much more freedom but with the eternal danger of suddenly being
culled for their meat, skins and tusks. No, Reckart had decreed, the boar
in the enclosure was not to be harmed.
He turned around. Glowering through the fence at him was a mangy and
age-ravaged but still formidable boar. As the rays of the setting sun
reached into the Base, a sliver of metal gleamed redly under one of its
Reckart greeted it politely. "Good evening, Silvereye."
"I don't know why you keep that horrible old beast," stammered Goort. "It
detests you. It wants to kill you. You can tell from the way it looks at
"I've explained before. Silvereye is my lucky boar. Brings me good
"Huh! Whereas the only fortune that monster wants is the fortune to break
out of its enclosure. And if it did, you'd stop being lucky!"
Reckart thought about this. "True. One creature's fortune is often another
creature's misfortune. We'd do well to remember that."
After spending several hours working his way through a mountain of
documents whose weight looked liable to collapse his tiny desk, Roostar
Nevys paused for a moment to give his weary eyes a rest. He set aside his
quill and peered through the equally tiny window in the wall next to him.
And just then a large coach bearing the name THE VILDAVOS ILLUMINATION
COMPANY clattered by below the window.
His interest piqued, Nevys adjusted the position of his chair so that he
could watch the coach travel further along the street. To his surprise, he
saw it disappear down a large opening in the middle of the road that, he'd
heard, was an entrance to a ramp descending into the Base.
In fact, he was so surprised that he said aloud: "It's gone down to the Base!"
A clerk at the next desk along looked up from a similar mountain of
documents and asked, "What's gone down to the Base?"
"The Illumination Company coach?"
"Yes. How did you know?"
"Oh, they're famous. Talk of the town these days. They've made masses of
"But … their coach went down to the Base."
"Well, it's where they make their money. The Base." The clerk chuckled.
"It's where they're based."
During his two-year descent from the peak of Vildavos society to near the
bottom of it, Nevys had thought a lot about the Base. Because the vengeful
Duchess de Marnios had been determined to turn every guild, business and
citizen in Vildavos against him, he'd worried about ending up there.
Indeed, only by changing his identity and adopting a false name had he
secured this lowly clerking job in the Customs Building and thus arrested
his fall. If he hadn't done that, he'd probably be in the Base now.
His fear of the Base had transformed into a hatred of it. "But the place is
a shithole!" he protested. "A sewer, a cesspool, a toilet! Full of wasters,
scumbags and cut-throats! Nothing can ever flourish down there, nothing!"
"Ah, but things can flourish there." Smugly, the other clerk pointed
at a glass globe attached to the wall midway between their desks. It was
dim just now but would be lit soon. "Where do you think our night-light
comes from?" Then he gestured downwards. "From below. In the Base they
produce the gas that powers the light, which is why they call themselves
the Illumination Company. I understand the gas comes from rotting pig-shit.
Supposedly, there's lakes of the stuff down there, directly under us,
emitting the gas that ends up in our light-globes."
Nevys realised this explained the unappetising smell that lurked in the
building's lower levels.
The other clerk concluded pompously, "It proves what my old grandfather
used to say. 'Where there's filth, there's fortunes. Where there's grot,
there's gold!' "
At the end of Nevys's shift, the final hours of which were spent working in
the glimmering gaslight provided by the Illumination Company, he retired to
his bunk in the building's dormitory. Usually by this point he was
exhausted and wanted only to sleep. Tonight, however, he felt strangely
alert and restless. The sight of that fancy coach had affected him. So had
the knowledge that its owners operated in the Base, amid the dregs of the
city. They were down there and yet, his colleague had claimed, they'd made
This surely constituted a lesson for the former Count Roostar Nevys. Here
he was at his lowest ebb, near the bottom of society. But why couldn't he
turn things around and become a rich, powerful man again? If those
reprobates in the Base could achieve wealth and fame, why couldn't he?
But to turn things around, he felt, he first had to solve the mystery of
For the first time in all the months he'd spent living and working in the
Customs Building, Nevys drew out a bundle from under his bunkbed, placed it
on top of the blankets and opened it. Folded inside it was the silvery
fabric that'd once functioned as the hide of a janostovore.
He'd kept the jacket in the hope that, one day, he'd be able to sell it and
make at least a little money from it. For now, however, the Duchess de
Marnios had seen to it that nobody in the clothing trade in Vildavos would
dare have dealings with him. And no doubt that contemptible maggot Wirmiosa
Hoag had put out word that any jacket made of janostovore hide, offered for
sale by anyone using any name, was not to be touched.
Nevys recalled how everything had started to go wrong for him on that
evening when a hand had impossibly slithered out of one of the jacket's
pockets. Afterwards, events had happened so quickly that he'd never felt
composed enough to pause, analyse what'd happened and investigate.
Well, now seemed an appropriate time to make the investigation. He steeled
himself and inserted a hand into the right-side pocket of the jacket.
The hand went in deep, then deeper, and then Nevys realised that something
strange was happening because there was no sign of his hand appearing on
the material's other side. He pushed it further, through what felt like a
soft, long tube of pocket-lining. Finally it encountered something
repellently cold and wet and he withdrew it. The hand re-emerged from the
pocket covered in sticky black muck.
He snatched the jacket off the bed. The blankets it'd been lying on were
hardly clean, but weren't besmirched by muck.
He recalled his colleague's words: "Where there's filth, there's fortunes.
Where there's grot, there's gold." He placed the jacket on the bed again
and, gritting his teeth, returned his dirtied hand to the pocket.
Silvereye's vision was poor enough during the daytime. At night, the boar
was practically blind. However, its sense of smell was powerful and just
now it could pick up two animals' scents.
One of these scents Silvereye had noticed before in this part of the
enclosure. It came from the ground and was a scent it didn't like. It
belonged to a type of animal that the boar was unacquainted with, although
something about it suggested danger.
However, the other scent was of a familiar animal and was enough to draw
the boar forward with its snout lowered, until it arrived at a small hole
that had some ends of soiled cloth sticking out over its rim like dirty
flower-petals. The rest of the cloth was buried inside the hole. Its snout
brushed against the unburied cloth and it retreated a few steps because
momentarily the smell of the unknown, dangerous animal became strong.
But then a human hand emerged from the hole and scrabbled over the ends of
cloth into the surrounding mud. The unknown animal's scent disappeared as
the familiar animal's scent overwhelmed it.
Silvereye got regular meals every day but those never seemed to satisfy its
appetite. And though it detested humans from instinct and experience, it'd
taken bites out of them from time to time and found them perfectly edible.
Therefore, when it smelled this live piece of human meat scampering across
the ground below it, it knew what to do.
Copyright 2020, Rab Foster
Bio: Rab Foster has spent much of his life living in the Borders region of
Scotland. He grew up on a hill-farm, but now works as an educational
consultant. His fantasy stories have appeared in Aphelion, Blood Moon
Rising, Legend and Sorcerous Signals, and he blogs regularly at
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