Aphelion Issue 262, Volume 25
June 2021
 
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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 agitated snake.

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 says so!"

"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 plummeted.

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 nearby parapet.

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 remained downward.

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 base.

***

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 scimitars.

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 its material.

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 into it.

***

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 upon …"

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 cut off."

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 son-in-law.

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 table's centre.

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 more.

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 mire originally.

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."

"What?"

"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?"

"The boars."

"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 protruding now.

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 animal."

"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 memorise it!"

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 well.

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 shadows beyond.

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 and vanished.

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 campfire.

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 revenge.

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."

"The Apothecaries?"

"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 of ashes.

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 that's enough."

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 again.

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 vile."

"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."

"And?"

"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 deal?"

"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 and greasy.

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 entrance doors.

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. Congratulations!"

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 and refreshments?"

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 wealth …

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 of pigs.

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 Base.

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."

"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 we're snobs!"

"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 knives.

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 impotence.

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 eyes.

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 you."

"I've explained before. Silvereye is my lucky boar. Brings me good fortune."

"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?"

"A coach!"

"The Illumination Company coach?"

"Yes. How did you know?"

"Oh, they're famous. Talk of the town these days. They've made masses of money recently."

"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 a fortune.

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 the jacket.

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.

THE END


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 www.bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/

E-mail: Rab Foster

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