Iucounu (known across Almery as 'the Laughing Magician') had worked one of his most mordant jokes upon Cugel. For the second time Cugel had been snatched up, carried north across the Ocean of Sighs, dropped upon that melancholy beach known as Shanglestone Strand.
Rising to his feet, Cugel brushed sand from his cloak and adjusted his hat. He stood not twenty yards from that spot upon which he had been dropped before, also at the behest of Iucounu. He carried no sword and his pouch contained no terces.
The solitude was absolute. No sound could be heard but the sigh of the wind along the dunes. Far to the east a dim headland thrust into the water, as did another, equally remote, to the west. To the south spread the sea, empty except for the reflection of the old red sun.
Cugel's frozen faculties began to thaw, and a whole set of emotions, one after the other, made themselves felt, with fury taking precedence over all.
Iucounu would now be enjoying his joke to the fullest. Cugel raised his fist high and shook it toward the south. "Iucounu, at last you have exceeded yourself! This time you will pay the price! I, Cugel, appoint myself your nemesis!"
For a period Cugel strode back and forth, shouting and cursing: a person long of arm and leg, with lank black hair, gaunt cheeks, and a crooked mouth of great flexibility. The time was middle afternoon, and the sun, already half-way into the west, tottered down the sky like a sick animal. Cugel, who was nothing if not practical, decided to postpone the remainder of his tirade; more urgent was lodging for the night. Cugel called down a final curse of pulsing carbuncles uponIucounu, then, picking his way across the shingle, he climbed to the crest of a dune and looked in all directions.
To the north a succession of marshes and huddles of black larch straggled away into the murk.
To the east Cugel gave only a cursory glance. Here were the villages Smolod and Grodz, and memories were long in the Land of Cutz.
To the south, languid and listless, the ocean extended to the horizon and beyond.
To the west, the shore stretched far to meet a line of low hills which, thrusting into the sea, became a headland ... . A red glitter flashed across the distance, and Cugel's attention was instantly attracted.
Such a red sparkle could only signify sunlight reflecting from glass!
Cugel marked the position of the glitter, which faded from view as the sunlight shifted. He slid down the face of the dune and set off at best speed along the beach.
The sun dropped behind the headland; gray-lavender gloom fell across the beach. An arm of that vast forest known as The Great Erm edged down from the north, suggesting a number of eery possibilities, and Cugel accelerated his pace to a striding bent-kneed lope.
The hills loomed black against the sky, but no sign of habitation appeared. Cugel's spirits sagged low. He proceeded more slowly, searching the landscape with care, and at last, to his great satisfaction, he came upon a large and elaborate manse of archaic design, shrouded behind the trees of an untidy garden. The lower windows glowed with amber light: a cheerful sight for the benighted wanderer.
Cugel turned briskly aside and approached the manse, putting by his usual precautions of surveillance and perhaps peering through the windows, especially in view of two white shapes at the edge of the forest which quietly moved back into the shadows as he turned to stare.
Cugel marched to the door and tugged smartly at the bell-chain. From within came the sound of a far gong.
A moment passed. Cugel looked nervously over his shoulder, and again pulled at the chain. Finally he heard slow steps approaching from within.
The door opened and a pinch-faced old man, thin, pale, and stoop-shouldered, looked through the crack.
Cugel used the suave tones of gentility; "Good evening! What is this handsome old place, may I ask?"
The old man responded without cordiality: "Sir, this is Flutic, where Master Twango keeps residence. What is your business?"
"Nothing out of the ordinary," said Cugel airily. "I am a traveler, and I seem to have lost my way. I will therefore trespass upon Master Twango's hospitality for the night, if I may."
"Quite impossible. From which direction do you come?"
"From the east."
"Then continue along the road, through the forest and over the hill, to Saskervoy. You will find lodging to meet your needs at the Inn of Blue Lamps."
"It is too far, and in any event robbers have stolen my money."
"You will find small comfort here; Master Twango gives short shrift to indigents." The old man started to close the door, but Cugel put his foot into the aperture.
"Wait! I noticed two white shapes at the edge of the forest, and I dare go no farther tonight!"
"In this regard, I can advise you," said the old man. "The creatures are probably rostgoblers, or 'hyperborean sloths', if you prefer the term. Return to the beach and wade ten feet into the water; you will be safe from their lust. Then tomorrow you may proceed to Saskervoy."
The door closed. Cugel looked anxiously over his shoulder. At the entrance to the garden, where heavy yews flanked the walk, he glimpsed a pair of still white forms. Cugel turned back to the door and jerked hard at the bell-chain.
Slow steps padded across the floor, and once again the door opened. The old man looked out. "Sir?"
"The ghouls are now in the garden! They block the way to the beach!"
The old man opened his mouth to speak, then blinked as a new concept entered his mind. He tilted his head and spoke craftily: "You have no funds?"
"I carry not so much as a groat."
"Well then; are you disposed toward employment?"
"Certainly, if I survive the night!"
"In that case, you are in luck! Master Twango can offer employment to a willing worker." The old man threw open the door and Cugel gratefully entered the manse.
With an almost exuberant flourish the old man closed the door. "Come, I will take you to Master Twango, and you can discuss the particulars of your employment. How do you choose to be announced?"
"I am Cugel."
"This way then! You will be pleased with the opportunities! ... Are you coming? At Flutic we are brisk!"
Despite all, Cugel held back. "Tell me something of the employment! I am, after all, a person of quality, and I do not turn my hand to everything."
"No fear! Master Twango will accord you every distinction. Ah, Cugel, you will be a happy man! If only I were young again! This way, if you please."
Cugel still held back. "First things first! I am tired and somewhat the worse for travel. Before I confer with Master Twango I would like to refresh myself and perhaps take a bite or two of nourishment. In fact, let us wait until tomorrow morning, when I will make a far better impression."
The old man demurred. "At Flutic all is exact, and every jot balances against a corresponding tittle. To whose account would I charge your refreshment? To Gark? To Gookin? To Master Twango himself? Absurd. Inevitably the consumption would fall against the account of Weamish, which is to say, myself. Never! My account at last is clear, and I propose to retire."
"I understand nothing of this," grumbled Cugel.
"Ah, but you will! Come now: to Twango!"
With poor grace Cugel followed Weamish into a chamber of many shelves and cases: a repository of curios, to judge by the articles on display.
"Wait here a single moment!" said Weamish and hopped on spindly legs from the room.
Cugel walked here and there, inspecting the curios and estimating their value. Strange to find such objects in a place so remote! He bent to examine a pair of small quasi-human grotesques rendered in exact detail. Craftsmanship at its most superb! thought Cugel.
Weamish returned. "Twango will see you shortly. Meanwhile he offers for your personal regalement this cup of vervain tea, together with these two nutritious wafers, at no charge."
Cugel drank the tea and devoured the wafers. "Twango's act of hospitality, though largely symbolic, does him credit." He indicated the cabinets. "All this is Twango's personal collection?"
"Just so. Before his present occupation he dealt widely in such goods."
"His tastes are bizarre, even peculiar."
Weamish raised his white eyebrows. "As to that I cannot say. It all seems ordinary enough to me."
"Not really," said Cugel. He indicated the pair of grotesques."For instance, I have seldom seen objects so studiously repulsive as this pair of bibelots. Skillfully done, agreed! Notice the detail in these horrid little ears! The snouts, the fangs: the malignance is almost real! Still, they are undeniably the work of a diseased imagination."
The objects reared erect. One of them spoke in a rasping voice: "No doubt Cugel has good reason for his unkind words; still, neither Gark nor I can take them lightly."
The other also spoke: "Such remarks carry a sting! Cugel has a feckless tongue." Both bounded from the room.
Weamish spoke in reproach. "You have offended both Gark and Gookin, who came only to guard Twango's valuables from pilferage. But what is done is done. Come; we will go to Master Twango."
Weamish took Cugel to a large workroom, furnished with a dozen tables piled with ledgers, crates and various oddments. Gark and Gookin, wearing smart long-billed caps of red and blue respectively, glared at Cugel from a bench. At an enormous desk sat Twango, who was short and corpulent, with a small chin, a dainty mouth and a bald pate surrounded by varnished black curls. Under his chin hung a faddish little goatee.
Upon the entrance of Cugel and Weamish, Twango swung around in his chair. "Aha, Weamish! This gentleman, so I am told, is Cugel. Welcome, Cugel, to Flutic!"
Cugel doffed his hat and bowed. "Sir, I am grateful for your hospitality on this dark night."
Twango arranged the papers on his desk and appraised Cugel from the corner of his eye. He indicated a chair. "Be seated, if you will. Weamish tells me that you might be inclined to employment, under certain circumstances."
Cugel nodded graciously. "I will be pleased to consider any post for which I am qualified, and which offers an appropriate compensation."
Weamish called from the side: "Just so! Conditions at Flutic are always optimum and at worst meticulous."
Twango coughed and chuckled. "Dear old Weamish! We have had a long association! But now our accounts are settled and he wishes to retire. Am I correct in this, Weamish?"
"You are, in every last syllable!"
Cugel made a delicate suggestion: "Perhaps you will describe the various levels of employment available and their corresponding perquisites. Then, after analysis, I will be able to indicate how best I can serve you."
Weamish cried out: "A wise request! Good thinking, Cugel! You will do well at Flutic, or I am much deceived."
Twango again straightened the papers on his desk. "My business is simple at its basis. I exhume and refurbish treasures of the past. I then survey, pack, and sell them to a shipping agent of Saskervoy, who delivers them to their ultimate consignee, who, so I understand, is a prominent magician of Almery. If I shape each phase of the operation to its best efficiency--Weamish, in a spirit of jocularity, used the word 'meticulous'--I sometimes turn a small profit."
"I am acquainted with Almery," said Cugel. "Who is the magician?"
Twango chuckled. "Soldinck the shipping agent refuses to release this information, so that I will not sell direct at double profit. But from other sources I learn that the consignee is a certain Iucounu of Pergolo ... . Cugel, did you speak?"
Cugel smilingly touched his abdomen. "An eructation only. I usually dine at this time. What of your own meal? Should we not continue our discussion over the evening repast?"
"All in good time," said Twango. "Now then, to continue. Weamish has long supervised my archaeological operations, and his position now becomes open. Is the name 'Sadlark' known to you?"
"Then for a moment I must digress. During the Cutz Wars of the Eighteenth Aeon, the demon Underherd interfered with the overworld, so that Sadlark descended to set matters right. For reasons obscure--I personally suspect simple vertigo--Sadlark plunged into the mire, creating a pit now found in my own back garden. Sadlark's scales persist to this day, and these are the treasures which we recover from the slime."
"You are fortunate in that the pit is so close to your residence," said Cugel. "Efficiency is thereby augmented."
Twango tried to follow Cugel's reasoning, then gave up the effort. "True." He pointed to a nearby table. "There stands a reconstruction of Sadlark in miniature!"
Cugel went to inspect the model, which had been formed by attaching a large number of silver flakes to a matrix of silver wires. The sleek torso stood on a pair of short legs terminating in circular webs. Sadlark lacked a head; the torso rose smoothly to a prow-like turret, fronted by a particularly complex scale with a red node at the center. Four arms hung from the upper torso; neither sense organs nor digestive apparatus were evident, and Cugel pointed out this fact to Twango as a matter of curiosity.
"Yes, no doubt," said Twango. "Things are done differently in the overworld. Like the model, Sadlark was constructed of scales on a matrix not of silver wires but wefts of force. When Sadlark plunged into the mire, the dampness annulled his forces; the scales dispersed and Sadlark became disorganized, which is the overworld equivalent of mortality."
"A pity," said Cugel, returning to his seat. "His conduct from the first would seem to have been quixotic."
"Possibly true," said Twango. "His motives are difficult to assess. Now, as to our own business: Weamish is leaving our little group and his post as 'supervisor of operations' becomes open. Is such a position within your capacity?"
"I should certainly think so," said Cugel. "Buried valuables have long engaged my interest!"
"Then the position should suit you famously!"
"And my stipend?"
"It shall be exactly that of Weamish, even though Weamish is a skilled and able associate of many years. In such cases, I play no favorites."
"In round numbers, then, Weamish earns how many terces?"
"I prefer to keep such matters confidential," said Twango, "but Weamish, so I believe, will allow me to reveal that last week he earned almost three hundred terces, and the week before as much again."
"True, from first to last!" said Weamish.
Cugel rubbed his chin. "Such a stipend would seem adequate to my needs."
"Just so," said Twango. "When can you assume your duties?"
Cugel considered for only a moment. "At once, for purposes of salary computation. However, I will want a few days to study your operation. I assume that you can provide me adequate board and lodging over this period?"
"Such facilities are provided at a nominal cost." Twango rose to his feet. "But I keep you talking when you are surely tired and hungry. Weamish, as his last official duty, will take you to the refectory, where you may dine to your selection. Then you may rest in whatever style of accomodation you find congenial. Cugel, I welcome you into our employ! In the morning we can settle the details of your compensation."
"Come!" cried Weamish. "To the refectory." He ran limping to the doorway, where he paused and beckoned. "Come along, Cugel! At Flutic one seldom loiters!"
Cugel looked at Twango. "Why is Weamish so animated, and why must one never loiter?"
Twango shook his head in fond bemusement. "Weamish is a nonpareil! Do not try to match his performance; I could never hope to find another like him!"
Weamish called again: "Come, Cugel! Must we stand here while the sun goes out?"
"I am coming, but I refuse to run blindly through this long dark corridor!"
"This way, then: after me!"
Cugel followed Weamish to the refectory: a hall with tables to one side and a buffet loaded with viands to the other. Two men sat dining. The first, a person large and thick-necked with a florid complexion, a tumble of blond curls and a surly expression, ate broad beans and bread. The second, who was as lean as a lizard, with a dark leathery skin, a narrow bony face and coarse black hair, consumed a meal no less austere, of steamed kale, with a wedge of raw onion for savor.
Cugel's attention, however, focused on the buffet. He turned to Weamish in wonder. "Does Twango always provide such a bounty of delicacies?"
Weamish responded in a disinterested fashion. "Yes, this is usually the case."
"The two men yonder: who are they?"
"To the left sits Yelleg; the other is Malser. They comprise the work-force which you will supervise."
"Only two? I expected a larger crew."
"You will find that these two suffice."
"For workmen, their appetites are remarkably moderate."
Weamish glanced indifferently across the room. "So it would seem. What of yourself: how will you dine?"
Cugel went to inspect the buffet at closer range. "I will start with a dish of these smoked oil-fish, and a salad of pepper-leaf. Then this roast fowl seems eminently edible, and I will try a cut off the rare end of the joint ... . The garnishes are nicely turned out. Finally, a few of these pastries and a flask of the Violet Mendolence: this should suffice. No question but what Twango does well by his employees!"
Cugel arranged a tray with viands of quality, while Weamish took only a small dish of boiled burdock leaves. Cugel asked in wonder: "Is that paltry meal adequate to your appetite?"
Weamish frowned down at his dish. "It is admittedly a trifle spare. I find that an over-rich diet reduces my zeal."
Cugel laughed confidently. "I intend to innovate a program ofrational operations, and this frantic harum-scarum zeal of yours, with all shirt-tails flying, will become unnecessary." Weamish pursed his lips.
"You will find that, at times, you are working as hard as your underlings. That is the nature of the supervisorial position."
"Never!" declared Cugel expansively. "I insist upon a rigid separation of functions. A toiler does not supervise and the supervisor does not toil. But as for your meal tonight, you are retired from work; you may eat and drink as you see fit!"
"My account is closed," said Weamish. "I do not care to reopen the books."
"A small matter, surely," said Cugel. "Still, if you are concerned, eat and drink as you will, to my account!"
"That is most generous!" Jumping to his feet, Weamish limped at speed to the buffet. He returned with a selection of choice meats, preserved fruits, pastries, a large cheese and a flask of wine, which he attacked with astonishing gusto.
A sound from above attracted Cugel's attention. He looked up to discover Gark and Gookin crouched on a shelf. Gark held a tablet upon which Gookin made entries, using an absurdly long stylus.
Gark inspected Cugel's plate. "Item: oil-fish, smoked and served with garlic and one leek, at four terces. Item: one fowl, good quality, large size, served with one cup of sauce and seven garnishes, at eleven terces. Item: three pastries of mince with herbs, at three terces each, to a total of nine terces. A salad of assorted stuffs: six terces. Item: three fardels, at two terces, to a total of six terces. Item: one large order of quince conserve, valued at three terces. Wine, nine terces. A service of napery and utensils: one terce."
Gookin spoke. "Noted and calculated. Cugel, place your mark at this point."
"Not so fast!" spoke Weamish sharply. "My supper tonight is at Cugel's expense. Include the charges to his account."
Gark demanded: "Cugel, is this correct?"
"I did in fact issue the invitation," said Cugel. "I dine here, however, in my capacity as supervisor. I hereby order that the charges for sustenance be waived. Weamish, as an honoured ex-employee, also eats without charge."
Gark and Gookin uttered shrill cackles of laughter, and even Weamish showed a painful smile. "At Flutic," said Weamish, "nothing is left to chance. Twango carefully distinguishes sentiment from business. If Twango owned the air, we would pay over coins for every gasp."
Cugel spoke with dignity: "These practises must be revised and at once! Otherwise I will resign my position. I must also point out that the fowl was underdone and the garlic lacked savor."
Gark and Gookin paid him no heed. Gookin tallied the charges on Weamish's meal. "Very well, Cugel; once more, we require your mark."
Cugel inspected the tablet. "These bird scratchings mean nothing to me!"
"Is that truly the case?" asked Gookin mildly. He took the tablet. "Aha, I notice an oversight. Add three terces for Weamish's digestive pastilles."
"Hold up!" roared Cugel. "What is the account at this instant?"
"One hundred and sixteen terces. We are often rendered a gratuity for our services."
"This is not one of the occasions!" Cugel snatched the tablet and scribbled his mark. "Now be off with you! I cannot dine in dignity with a pair of weird little swamp-hoppers peering over my shoulder."
Gark and Gookin bounded away in a fury. Weamish said: "That last remark struck somewhat close to the knuckle. Remember, Gark and Gookin prepare the food and whoever irks them sometimes finds noxious substances in his victual."
Cugel spoke firmly. "They should rather beware of me! As supervisor, I am a person of importance. If Twango fails to enforce my directives, I will resign my post!"
"That option is of course open to you--as soon as you pay off your account."
"I see no great problem there. If the supervisor earns three hundred terces a week, I can quickly discharge my account."
Weamish drank deeply from his goblet. The wine seemed to loosen his tongue. He leaned toward Cugel and spoke in a hoarse whisper. "Three hundred terces a week, eh? For me that was a fluke! Yelleg and Malser are slime-divers, as we call them. They earn three to twenty terces for each scale found, depending on quality. The 'Clover-leaf Femurials' bring ten terces, as do the 'Dorsal Double Luminants'. An 'Interlocking Sequalion' for either turret or pectorus brings twenty terces. The rare 'Lateral Flashers' are also worth twenty terces. Whoever finds the 'Pectoral Sky-break Spatterlight' will gain one hundred terces."
Cugel poured more wine into Weamish's goblet. "I am listening with two ears."
Weamish drank the wine but otherwise seemed hardly to notice Cugel's presence. "Yelleg and Malser work from before dawn untildark. They earn ten to fifteen terces a day on the average, from which the costs of board, lodging and incidentals are deducted. As supervisor you will see to their safety and comfort, at a salary of ten terces per day. Additionally, you gain a bonus of one terce for each scale exhumed by Yelleg and Malser, regardless of type. While Yelleg and Malser warm themselves at the fire or take their tea, you yourself are entitled to dive for scales."
"'Dive'?" asked Cugel in perplexity.
"Precisely so, into the pit created by Sadlark's impact with the mire. The work is tedious and one must dive deep. Recently--" here Weamish drank an entire goblet of wine at a gulp "--I scratched into a whole nest of good quality scales, with many 'specials' among them, and the next week, by great good fortune, I did the same. Thus I was able to amortize my account, and I have elected to retire on the instant."
Cugel's meal had suddenly gone tasteless. "And your previous earnings?"
"On good days I might earn as much as Yelleg and Malser."
Cugel turned his eyes to the ceiling. "With an income of twelve terces a day and expenses ten times as much, how does one profit by working?"
"Your question is to the point. First of all, one learns to dine without reference to subtle distinctions. Also, when one sleeps the sleep of exhaustion, he ignores the decor of his chamber."
"As supervisor, I will make changes!" But Cugel spoke with little conviction.
Weamish, now somewhat befuddled, held up a long white finger. "Still, do not overlook the opportunities! They exist, I assure you, and in unexpected places!" Leaning forward, Weamish showed Cugel a leer of cryptic significance.
"Speak on!" said Cugel. "I am attentive!"
After belching, swallowing another draught of wine, and looking over his shoulder, Weamish said: "I can only emphasize that, to overcome the wiles of such as Twango, the most superb skills are necessary."
"Your remarks are interesting," said Cugel. "May I refill your goblet?"
"With pleasure." Weamish drank with satisfaction, then leaned once more toward Cugel. "Would you care to hear a great joke?"
"I would indeed."
Weamish spoke in a confidential whisper: "Twango considers mealready in my dotage!" Leaning back in his chair, Weamish showed Cugel a gap-toothed grin.
Cugel waited, but Weamish's joke had been told. Cugel laughed politely. "What an absurdity!"
"Is it not? When by a most ingenious method I have settled my accounts? Tomorrow I will leave Flutic and spend several years traveling among the fashionable resorts. Then let Twango wonder as to who is in his dotage, he or I."
"I have no doubt as to his verdict. In fact, all is clear except the details of your 'ingenious method'."
Weamish gave a wincing grimace and licked his lips, as vanity and bravado struggled against the last reeling elements of his caution. He opened his mouth to speak ... . A gong sounded, as someone at the door pulled hard on the bell-rope.
Weamish started to rise, then, with a careless laugh, subsided into his chair. "Cugel, it now becomes your duty to attend to late visitors, and to early visitors as well."
"I am 'supervisor of operations', not general lackey," said Cugel.
"A noble hope," said Weamish wistfully. "First you must cope with Gark and Gookin, who enforce all regulations to the letter."
"They will learn to walk softly in my presence!"
The shadow of a lumpy head and a dapper long-billed cap fell over the table. A voice spoke. "Who will learn to walk softly?"
Cugel looked up to find Gookin peering over the edge of the shelf.
Again the gong sounded. Gookin called out: "Cugel, to your feet! Answer the door! Weamish will instruct you in the routine."
"As supervisor," said Cugel, "I hereby assign you to this task. Be quick!"
In response Gookin flourished a small three-stranded knout, each thong terminating in a yellow sting.
Cugel thrust up on the shelf with such force that Gookin sprawled head over heels through the air to fall into a platter of assorted cheeses which had been set out upon the buffet. Cugel picked up the knout and held it at the ready. "Now then: will you go about your duties? Or must I beat you well, then throw both you and your cap into this pot of tripes?"
Into the refectory came Twango on the run, with Gark sitting bulge-eyed on his shoulder. "What is all this commotion? Gookin, why do you lie among the cheeses?"
Cugel said: "Since I am supervisor, you should properly address me. The facts of the case are these: I ordered Gookin to answer thedoor. He attempted a flagrant insolence, and I was about to chastise him."
Twango's face became pink with annoyance. "Cugel, this is not our usual routine! Heretofore the supervisor has habitually answered the door."
"We now make an instant change! The supervisor is relieved of menial duties. He will earn triple the previous salary, with lodging and sustenance included at no charge."
Once more the gong sounded. Twango muttered a curse. "Weamish! Answer the door! Weamish? Where are you?"
Weamish had departed the refectory.
Cugel gave a stern order: "Gark! Respond to the gong!"
Gark gave back a surly hiss. Cugel pointed to the door. "Gark, you are hereby discharged, on grounds of insubordination! The same applies to Gookin. Both of you will immediately leave the premises and return to your native swamp."
Gark, now joined by Gookin, responded only with hisses of defiance.
Cugel turned to Twango. "I fear that unless my authority is affirmed I must resign."
Twango threw up his arms in vexation. "Enough of this foolishness! While we stand here the gong rings incessantly!" He marched off down the corridor toward the door, with Gark and Gookin bounding behind him.
Cugel followed at a more leisurely gait. Twango threw open the door, to admit a sturdy man of middle age wearing a hooded brown cloak. Behind him came two others in similar garments.
Twango greeted the visitor with respectful familiarity. "Master Soldinck! The time is late! Why, at this hour, do you fare so far?"
Soldinck spoke in a heavy voice: "I bring serious and urgent news, which could not wait an instant."
Twango stood back aghast. "Mercantides is dead?"
"The tragedy is one of deception and theft!"
"What has been stolen?" asked Twango impatiently. "Who has been deceived?"
"I will recite the facts. Four days ago, at noon precisely, I arrived here with the strong-wagon. I came in company with Rincz and Jornulk, both, as you know, elders and persons of probity."
"Their reputations have never been assailed, to my knowledge. Why now do you bring them into question?"
"Patience; you shall hear!"
"Proceed! Cugel, you are a man of experience; stand by and exerciseyour judgment. This, incidentally, is Master Soldinck of the firm Soldinck and Mercantides, Shipping Agents."
Cugel stepped forward and Soldinck continued his declaration.
"With Rincz and Jornulk, I entered your workroom. There, in our presence, you counted out and we packed six hundred and eighty scales into four crates."
"Correct. There were four hundred 'ordinaries', two hundred 'specials' and eighty 'premium specials' of unique character."
"Just so. Together, and in the presence of Weamish, we packed the crates, sealed them, affixed bands and plaques. I suggest that Weamish be summoned, that he may put his wisdom to the solution of our mystery."
"Gark! Gookin! Be so good as to summon Weamish. Still, Master Soldinck, you have not defined the mystery itself!"
"I will now do so. With yourself, Weamish, Rincz, Jornulk and myself on hand, the scales were encased as always in your workroom. Weamish then, to our supervision, placed the cases upon the wheeled carrier, and we complimented him both for the nicety in which he had decorated the carrier and his care to ensure that the cases might not fall to the ground. Then, with Rincz and me in the lead, you and Jornulk behind, Weamish carefully rolled the cases down the corridor, pausing, so I recall, only long enough to adjust his shoe and comment to me upon the unseasonable chill."
"Precisely so. Continue."
"Weamish rolled the carrier to the wagon and the cases were transferred into the strong-box, which was immediately locked. I wrote a receipt to you, which Rincz and Jornulk counter-signed, and on which Weamish placed his mark as witness. Finally I paid over to you your money, and you gave me the receipted invoice."
"We drove the wagon directly to Saskervoy, where, with all formality, the cases were transferred into a vault, for dispatch to far Almery."
"Today, Mercantides thought to verify the quality of the scales. I opened a case, so carefully certified, to find only lumps of mud and gravel. Thereupon all cases were investigated. Each case contained nothing but worthless soil, and there you have the mystery. We hope that either you or Weamish can help us resolve this shocking affair, or, failing that, refund our money."
"The last possibility is out of the question. I can add nothing to your statement. All went as you have described. Weamish may have noticed some peculiar incident, but surely he would have notified me."
"Still, his testimony may suggest an area of investigation, if only he would present himself."
Gark bounded into the room, eyes bulging in excitement. He called out in a rasping voice: "Weamish is on the roof. He is behaving in an unusual manner!"
Twango flourished his arms in distress. "Senile, yes, but foolish so soon? He has only just retired!"
"What?" cried Soldinck. "Weamish retired? A great surprise!"
"For us all! He settled his accounts to the last terce, then declared his retirement."
"Most odd!" said Soldinck. "We must bring Weamish down from the roof and at once!"
With Gark bounding ahead, Twango ran out into the garden, with Soldinck, Rincz, Jornulk and Cugel coming after.
The night was dark, illuminated only by a few sickly constellations. Light from within, striking up through the roofpanes, showed Weamish walking a precarious route along the ridge.
Twango called out: "Weamish, why are you walking on high? Come down at once!"
Weamish looked here and there to discover the source of the call. Observing Twango and Soldinck, he uttered a wild cry in which defiance seemed mingled with mirth.
"That is at best an ambiguous response," said Soldinck.
Twango called again: "Weamish, a number of scales are missing, and we wish to ask a question or two."
"Ask away, wherever you like and all night long--anywhere except only here. I am walking the roof and do not care to be disturbed."
"Ah, but Weamish, it is you of whom we wish to ask the question! You must come down at once!"
"My accounts are settled! I walk where I will!"
Twango clenched his fists. "Master Soldinck is puzzled and disturbed! The missing scales are irreplaceable!"
"No less am I, as you will learn!" Again Weamish uttered his strange cacchination.
Soldinck spoke sourly: "Weamish has become addled."
"Work gave his life meaning," explained Twango. "He dived deep into the slime and found a whole nest of scales, so he paid off his account. Ever since he has been acting strangely."
Soldinck asked: "When did he find the scales?"
"Only two days ago." Once more Twango raised his voice. "Weamish! Come down at once! We need your help!"
Soldinck asked: "Weamish found his scales after we had accepted the last shipment?"
"Quite true. One day later, as a matter of fact."
"A curious coincidence."
Twango stared at him blankly. "Surely you cannot suspect Weamish!"
"The facts point in his direction."
Twango turned sharply about. "Gark, Gookin, Cugel! Up to the roof! Help Weamish to the ground!"
Cugel spoke haughtily. "Gark and Gookin are my subordinates. Inform me as to your wishes and I will issue the necessary orders."
"Cugel, your attitudes have become intolerable! You are hereby demoted! Now, up on the roof with you! I want Weamish brought down at once!"
"I have no head for heights," said Cugel. "I resign my position."
"Not until your accounts are settled. They include the fine cheeses into which you flung Gookin."
Cugel protested, but Twango turned his attention back to the roof and refused to listen.
Weamish strolled back and forth along the ridge. Gark and Gookin appeared behind him. Twango called up: "Weamish, take all precautions! Gark and Gookin will lead the way!"
Weamish gave a final wild scream, and running along the ridge, hurled himself off into space, to land head-first upon the pavement below. Gark and Gookin crept to the edge of the roof to peer popeyed down at the limp figure.
After a brief inspection, Twango turned to Soldinck. "I fear that Weamish is dead."
"What then of the missing scales?"
"You must look elsewhere," said Twango. "The theft could not have occurred at Flutic."
"I am not so sure," said Soldinck. "In fact, I suspect otherwise."
"You are deceived by coincidences," said Twango. "The night is chill; let us return inside. Cugel, convey the corpse to the gardener's shed in the back garden. Weamish's grave is ready; in the morning you may bury him."
"If you recall," said Cugel, "I have resigned my place. I no longer consider myself employed at Flutic, unless you concede distinctly better terms."
Twango stamped his feet. "Why, at this time of tribulation, must you annoy me with your nonsense? I lack the patience to deal with you! Gark! Gookin! Cugel thinks to shirk his duties!"
Gark and Gookin crept forward. Gookin flung a noose around Cugel's ankles, while Gark threw a net over Cugel's head. Cugel fell heavily to the ground, where Gark and Gookin beat him well with short staves.
After a period Twango came to the door. He cried out: "Stop! The clamor offends our ears! If Cugel has changed his mind, let him go about his work."
Cugel decided to obey Twango's orders. Cursing under his breath, he dragged the corpse to a shed in the back garden. Then he limped to that hut vacated by Weamish, and here he passed a wakeful night, by reason of sprains, bruises, and contusions.
At an early hour Gark and Gookin pounded on the door. "Out and about your work!" called Gookin. "Twango wishes to inspect the interior of this hut."
Cugel, despite his aches, had already made such a search, to no avail. He brushed his clothing, adjusted his hat, sauntered from the hut, and stood aside while Gark and Gookin, under Twango's direction, searched the premises. Soldinck, who apparently had spent the night at Flutic, watched vigilantly from the doorway.
Twango finished the search. "There is nothing here," he told Soldinck. "Weamish is vindicated!"
"He might have secreted the scales elsewhere!"
"Unlikely! The scales were packed while you watched. Under close guard they were taken to the wagon. You yourself, with Rincz and Jornulk, transferred the cases to your wagon. Weamish had no more opportunity to steal the scales than I myself!"
"Then how do you explain Weamish's sudden wealth?"
"He found a nest of scales; is that so bizarre?"
Soldinck had nothing more to say. Departing Flutic, he returned over the hill to Saskervoy.
Twango called a staff meeting in the refectory. The group included Yelleg, Malser, Cugel and Bilberd the feeble-minded gardener. Gark and Gookin crouched on a high shelf, monitoring the conduct of all.
Twango spoke somberly. "I stand here today in sorrow! Poor Weamish, while strolling in the dark, suffered an accident and is no longer with us. Sadly, he did not live to enjoy his retirement. This concept alone must give us all cause for reflection!
"There is other news, no less disturbing. Four cases of scales, representing great value, have somehow been preempted, or stolen. Does anyone here have information, no matter how trivial, concerning this heinous act?" Twango looked from face to face. "No? In thatcase, I have no more to say. All to their tasks, and let Weamish's lucky find be an inspiration to all!
"One final word! Since Cugel is unfamiliar with the routines of his work, I ask that all extend to him the hand of cheerful good-fellowship and teach him whatever he needs to know. All to work, then, at speed and efficiency!"
Twango called Cugel aside. "Last night we seem to have had a misunderstanding as to the meaning of the word 'supervisor'. At Flutic, this word denotes a person who supervises the comfort and convenience of his fellow workers, including me, but who by no means controls their conduct."
"That distinction has already been made clear," said Cugel shortly.
"Precisely so. Now, as your first duty, you will bury Weamish. His grave is yonder, behind the bilberry bush. At this time you may select a site and excavate a grave for yourself, in the unhappy event that you should die during your tenure at Flutic."
"This is not to be thought of," said Cugel. "I have far to go before I die."
"Weamish spoke in much the same terms," said Twango. "But he is dead! And his comrades are spared a melancholy task, since he dug, tended and decorated a fine grave." Twango chuckled sadly. "Weamish must have felt the flutter of the black bird's wings! Only two days ago I found him cleaning and ordering his grave, and setting all to rights!"
"Two days ago?" Cugel considered. "This was after he had found his scales."
"True! He was a dedicated man! I trust that you, Cugel, as you live and work at Flutic, will be guided by his conduct!"
"I hope to do exactly that," said Cugel.
"Now you may bury Weamish. His carrier is yonder in the shed. He built it himself and it is only fitting that you use it to convey his corpse to the grave."
"That is a kind thought." With no further words Cugel went to the shed and brought out the carrier: a table rolling on four wheels. Impelled, so it would seem, by a desire to beautify his handiwork, Weamish had attached a skirt of dark blue cloth to hang as a fringe below the top surface.
Cugel loaded Weamish's body upon the carrier and rolled it out into the back garden. The carrier functioned well, although the top surface seemed insecurely attached to the frame. Odd, thought Cugel, when the vehicle must carry valuable cases of scales! Making an inspection,Cugel found that a peg secured the top surface to the frame. When he pulled away the peg, the top pivoted and would have spilled the corpse had he not been alert.
Cugel investigated the carrier in some detail, then wheeled the corpse to that secluded area north of the manse which Weamish had selected for his eternal rest.
Cugel took stock of the surroundings. A bank of myrhadion trees dangled long festoons of purple blossoms over the grave. Gaps in the foliage allowed a view along the beach and over the sea. To the left a slope grown over with bitterbush and syrinx descended to the pond of of black slime.
Already Yelleg and Malser were at work. Hunching and shuddering to the chill, they dived from a platform into the slime. Pulling themselves as deep as possible by means of weights and ropes, they groped for scales; and at last emerged panting and gasping and dripping black ooze.
Cugel gave his head a shake of distaste, then uttered a sharp exclamation as something stung his right buttock. Jerking about he discovered Gark watching from under the broad leaf of a madder plant. He carried a small contrivance by which he could launch pebbles, and which he had evidently used upon Cugel. Gark adjusted the bill of his red cap and hopped forward. "Work at speed, Cugel! There is much to be done!"
Cugel deigned no response. With all dignity he unloaded the corpse, and Gark took his leave.
Weamish indeed had maintained his grave with pride. The hole, five feet deep, had been dug square and true, although at the bottom and to the side the dirt seemed loose and friable. Cugel nodded with quiet satisfaction.
"Quite likely," Cugel told himself. "Not at all unlikely."
With spade in hand he jumped into the grave and prodded into the dirt. From the corner of his eye he noticed the approach of a small figure in a red cap. Gark had returned, hoping to catch Cugel unaware, and fair game for another skillfully aimed pebble. Cugel loaded the spade with dirt, swung it high, up and over, and heard a gratifying squawk of surprise.
Cugel climbed from the grave. Gark squatted at a little distance, shaking the dirt from his cap. "You are careless where you throw your dirt!
Cugel, leaning on his spade, chuckled. "If you skulk through the bushes, how can I see you?"
"The responsibility is yours. It is my duty to inspect your work."
"Jump down into the grave, where you may inspect at close range!"
Gark's eyes bulged in outrage, and he gnashed the chitinous parts of his mouth. "Do you take me for a numbskull? Get on with your work! Twango will not pay good terces for idle hours of dreaming!"
"Gark, you are stern!" said Cugel. "Well, if I must, I must." Without further ceremony he, rolled Weamish into his grave, covered him over, and tamped down the mold.
So passed the morning. At noon Cugel made an excellent lunch of braised eel with ramp and turnips, a conserve of exotic fruits and a flask of white wine. Yelleg and Malser, lunching upon coarse bread and pickled acorns, watched sidelong in mingled surprise and envy.
During the late afternoon, Cugel went out to the pond to assist the divers as they finished work for the day. First Malser emerged from the pond, hands like claws, then Yelleg. Cugel flushed away the slime with water piped from a stream, then Yelleg and Malser went to a shed to change clothes, their skin shriveled and lavender from the cold. Since Cugel had neglected to build a fire, their complaints were curtailed only by the chattering of their teeth.
Cugel hastened to repair the lack, while the divers discussed the day's work. Yelleg had gleaned three 'ordinary' scales from under a rock, while Malser, exploring a crevice, had discovered four of the same quality.
Yelleg told Cugel: "Now you may dive if you see fit, though the light fails fast."
"This is the time Weamish dived," said Malser. "He often used the hours of early morning, as well. But no matter what his exertions never did he neglect our warming fire."
"It was an oversight on my part," said Cugel. "I am not yet accustomed to the routine."
Yelleg and Malser grumbled somewhat more, then went to the refectory, where they dined on boiled kelp. For his own meal, Cugel took first a tureen of hunter's goulash, with morels and dumplings. For a second course, he selected a fine cut of roast mutton, with a piquant sauce, assorted side dishes, and a rich red wine; then, for dessert, he devoured a large dish of mungberry trifle.
Yelleg and Malser, on their way from the refectory, stopped to advise Cugel. "You are consuming meals of excellent quality, but the prices are inordinate! Your account with Twango will occupy your efforts for the rest of your life."
Cugel only laughed and made an easy gesture. "Sit down, andallow me to repair my deficiencies of this afternoon. Gark! Two more goblets, another flask of wine and be quick about it!"
Yelleg and Malser willingly seated themselves. Cugel poured wine with a generous hand, and refilled his own goblet as well. He leaned comfortably back in his chair.
"Naturally," said Cugel, "the possibility of exorbitant charges has occurred to me. Since I do not intend to pay, I care not a fig for expense!"
Both Yelleg and Malser murmured in surprise. "That is a remarkably bold attitude!"
"Not altogether. At any instant the sun may lurch into oblivion. At this time, were I to owe Twango ten thousand terces for a long series of excellent meals, my last thoughts would be happy ones!"
Both Yelleg and Malser were impressed by the logic of the concept, which had not previously occurred to them.
Yelleg mused: "Your point seems to be that if one's debt to Twango hovers always at thirty or forty terces, it might as well be ten thousand!"
Malser said thoughtfully: "Twenty thousand, or even thirty thousand, would seem an even more worthy debt."
"This is an ambition of truly great scope!" declared Yelleg. "As of this moment, I believe that I will try a good slice of that roast mutton!"
"And I as well!" said Malser. "Let Twango worry about the cost! Cugel, I drink to your health!"
Twango jumped from a nearby booth, where he had sat unseen. "I have heard the whole of this base conversation! Cugel, your concepts do you no credit! Gark! Gookin! In the future Cugel must be served only the Grade Five cuisine, similar to that formerly enjoyed by Weamish."
Cugel only shrugged. "If necessary, I will pay my account."
"That is good news!" said Twango. "And what will you use for terces?"
"I have my little secrets," said Cugel. "I will tell you this much: I intend notable innovations in the scale-gathering process."
Twango snorted incredulously. "Please perform these miracles in your spare time. Today you neglected to dust the relics; you neither waxed nor polished the parquetry. You failed to dig your grave, and you neglected to carry out the kitchen wastes."
"Gark and Gookin must carry out the garbage," said Cugel.
"While I was still supervisor, I rearranged the work schedule."
Gark and Gookin, on the high shelf, set up a protest.
"The schedule is as before," said Twango. "Cugel, you must observe the regular routine." He departed the room, leaving Cugel, Yelleg and Malser to finish their wine.
Before sunrise Cugel was awake and abroad in the back garden, where the air was damp and chill, and heavy with silence. Bottle-yew and larch imposed silhouettes in a ragged fringe around the mulberry-gray sky; must lay in low ribbons across the pond.
Cugel went to the gardener's shed, where he secured a stout spade. Somewhat to the side, under a lush growth of pauncewort, he noticed an iron tub, or trough, ten feet long by three feet wide, built to a purpose not now in evidence. Cugel examined the trough with care, then went to the back of the garden. Under the myrhadion tree he started to dig the grave ordained by Twango.
Despite the melancholy nature of the task, Cugel dug with zest.
The work was interrupted by Twango himself, who came carefully across the garden, wearing his black gown and a bicorn hat of black fur to guard his head against the bite of the morning chill.
Twango paused beside the grave. "I see that you have taken my censure to heart. You have worked to good effect, but why, may I ask, have you dug so close to poor Weamish? You will lie essentially side by side."
"Quite so. I feel that Weamish, were he allowed one last glimmer of perception, would take comfort in the fact."
Twango pursed his lips. "That is a nice sentiment, though perhaps a trifle florid." He glanced up toward the sun. "Time passes us by! In your attention to this particular task, you are neglecting routine. At this moment you should be emptying the kitchen waste bins!"
"Those are chores more properly consigned to Gark and Gookin."
"Not so! The handles are too high."
"Let them use smaller bins! I have more urgent work at hand, such as the efficient and rapid recovery of Sadlark's scales."
Twango peered sharply sidewise. "What do you know about such matters?"
"Like Weamish, I bring a fresh viewpoint to bear. As you know, Weamish made a notable success."
"True ... . Yes, quite so. Still, we cannot turn Flutic topsy-turvy for the sake of possibly impractical speculation."
"Just as you like," said Cugel. He climbed from the grave and for the rest of the morning worked at menial tasks, laughing and singing with such verve that Gark and Gookin made a report to Twango.
At the end of the afternoon Cugel was allowed an hour to his owndevices. He laid a spray of lilies on Weamish's grave, then resumed digging in his own grave ... . After a few moments he noticed Gookin's blue cap, where that grotesque pastiche of homunculus and frog crouched under a mallow leaf.
Cugel pretended not to notice and dug with energy. Before long he encountered the cases which Weamish had secreted to the side of his own grave.
Pretending to rest, Cugel surveyed the landscape. Gookin crouched as before. Cugel returned to his work.
One of the cases had been broken open, presumably by Weamish, and all its contents removed except for a small parcel of twenty low-value 'specials', left behind perhaps by oversight. Cugel tucked the parcel into his pouch, then covered over the case, just as Gookin came hopping across the sward. "Cugel, you have overstayed your time! You must learn precision!"
Cugel responded with dignity. "You will notice that I am digging my grave."
"No matter! Yelleg and Malser are in need of their tea."
"All in good time," said Cugel. He climbed from the grave and went to the gardener's shed where he found Yelleg and Malser standing hunched and numb. Yelleg cried out: "Tea is one of the few free perquisites rendered by Twango! All day we grope through the freezing slime, anticipating the moment when we may drink tea and warm our shriveled skin at the fire!"
Malser chimed in: "There is neither tea nor fire! Weamish was more assiduous!"
"Be calm!" said Cugel. "I still have not mastered the routine."
Cugel set the fire alight and brewed tea; Yelleg and Malser grumbled further but Cugel promised better service in the future and the divers were appeased. They warmed themselves and drank tea, then once more ran down to the pond and plunged into the slime.
Shortly before sunset Gookin summoned Cugel to the pantry. He indicated a tray upon which rested a silver goblet. "This is Twango's tonic which you must serve to him every day at this time."
"What?" cried Cugel. "Is there no end to my duties?"
Gookin responded only with a croak of indifference. Cugel snatched up the tray and carried it to the workroom. He found Twango sorting scales: inspecting each in turn through a lens, then placing it into one of several boxes, his hands encased in soft leather gloves.
Cugel put down the tray. "Twango, a word with you!"
Twango, with lens to his eye, said: ''At the moment, Cugel, I am occupied, as you can see."
"I serve this tonic under protest! Once again I cite the terms of our agreement, by which I became 'supervisor of operations' at Flutic. This post does not include the offices of valet, scullion, porter, dogsbody and general roustabout. Had I known the looseness of your categories--"
Twango made an impatient gesture. "Silence, Cugel! Your peevishness grates on the nerves."
"Still, what of our agreement?"
"Your position has been reclassified. The pay remains the same, so you have no cause for dissatisfaction." Twango drank the tonic. "Let us hear no more on the subject. I might also mention that Weamish customarily donned a white coat before serving the tonic. We thought it a nice touch."
Twango went back to his work, referring on occasion to the pages of a large leather-bound book hinged with brass and reinforced with brass filigree. Cugel watched sourly from the side. Presently he asked: "What will you do when the scales run out?"
"I need not concern myself for some time to come," said Twango primly.
"What is that book?"
"It is a work of scholarship and my basic reference: Haruviot's Intimate Anatomy of Several Overworld Personages. I use it to identify the scales; it is invaluable in this regard."
"Interesting!" said Cugel. "How many sorts do you find?"
"I cannot specify exactly." Twango indicated a group of unsorted scales. "These gray-green 'ordinaries' are typical of the dorsal areas; the pinks and vermilions are from under the torso. Each has its distinctive chime." Twango held a choice gray-green 'ordinary' to his ear and tapped it with a small metal bar. He listened with eyes half-closed. "The pitch is perfect! It is a pleasure to handle scales such as this."
"Then why do you wear gloves?"
"Aha! Much that we do confuses the layman! Remember, we deal with stuff of the overworld! When wet it is mild, but when dry, it often irks the skin."
Twango looked to his diagram and selected one of the 'specials'. "Hold out your hand ... . Come, Cugel, do not cringe! You will not suddenly become an overworld imp, I assure you of this!"
Cugel gingerly extended his hand. Twango touched the 'special' to his palm. Cugel felt a puckering of the skin and a stinging as if at the abrasive suck of a lamprey. With alacrity he jerked back his hand.
Twango chuckled and returned the scale to its position. "For this reason I wear gloves when I handle dry scales."
Cugel frowned down at the table. "Are all so acrid?"
"You were stung by a 'Turret Frontal Lapidative', which is quite active. These 'Juncture Spikes' are somewhat easier. The 'Pectoral Sky-break Spatterlight', so I suspect, will prove to be the most active of all, as it controlled Sadlark's entire web of forces. The 'ordinaries' are mild, except upon long contact."
"Amazing how these forces persist across the aeons!"
"What is 'time' in the overworld? The word may not even enter the parlance. And speaking of time, Weamish customarily devoted this period to diving for scales; often he worked long hours into the night. His example is truly inspiring! Through fortitude, persistence and sheer grit, he paid off his account!"
"My methods are different," said Cugel. "The results may well be the same. Perhaps in times to come you will mention the name 'Cugel' to inspire your staff."
"I suppose that it is not impossible."
Cugel went out into the back garden. The sun had set; in the twilight the pond lay black and lusterless. Cugel went to work with a fervor which might have impressed even Weamish. Down to the shore of the pond he dragged the old iron trough, then brought down several coils of rope.
Daylight had departed, save only for a streak of metallic eggplant along the ocean's horizon. Cugel considered the pond, where at this time of day Weamish was wont to dive, guided by the flicker of a single candle on the shore.
Cugel gave his head a sardonic shake and sauntered back to the manse.
Early in the morning Cugel returned to the pond. He knotted together several coils of rope to create a single length, which he tied from a stunted juniper on one side of the pond to a bull-thorn bush on the other, so that the rope stretched across the center of the pond.
Cugel brought a bucket and a large wooden tub to the shore. He launched the trough upon the pond, loaded tub and bucket into his makeshift scow, climbed aboard, and then, tugging on the rope, pulled himself out to the middle.
Yelleg and Malser, arriving on the scene, stopped short to stare. Cugel also noted the red and blue caps of Gark and Gookin where they lurked behind a bank of heliotrope.
Cugel dropped the bucket deep into the pond, pulled it up andpoured the contents into the tub. Six times he filled and emptied the bucket, then pulled the scow back to shore.
He carried a bucket full of slime to the stream and, using a large sieve, screened the stuff in the bucket.
To Cugel's amazement, when the water flushed away the slime, two scales remained in the sieve: an 'ordinary' and a second scale of remarkable size, with elaborate radiating patterns and a dull red node at the center.
A flicker of movement, a darting little arm: Cugel snatched at the fine new scale, but too late! Gookin started to bound away. Cugel jumped out like a great cat and bore Gookin to the ground. He seized the scale, kicked Gookin's meager haunches, to project him ten feet through the air. Alighting, Gookin jumped to his feet, brandished his fist, chattered a set of shrill curses. Cugel retaliated with a heavy clod. Gookin dodged, then turned and ran at full speed toward the manse.
Cugel reflected a moment, then scooped a hole in the mold beside a dark blue mitre-bush and buried his fine new scale. The 'ordinary' he tucked into his pouch, then went to fetch another bucket of slime from the scow.
Five minutes later, with stately tread, Twango came across the garden. He halted to watch as Cugel sieved a bucketful of slime.
"An ingenious arrangement," said Twango. "Quite clever--though you might have asked permission before sequestering my goods to your private use."
Cugel said coldly: "My first concern is to gather scales, for our mutual benefit."
"Hmmf ... . Gookin tells me that already you have recovered a notable 'special'."
"A 'special'? It is no more than an 'ordinary'." Cugel brought the scale from his pouch.
With pursed lips Twango inspected the scale. "Gookin was quite circumstantial in his report."
"Gookin is that individual for whom the word 'mendacity' was coined. He is simply not to be trusted. Now please excuse me, as I wish to return to work. My time is valuable."
Twango stood dubiously aside and watched as Cugel sieved a third bucket-load of slime. "It is very strange about Gookin. How could he imagine the 'Spatterlight' in such vivid detail?"
"Bah!" said Cugel. "I cannot take time to reflect upon Gookin's fantasies."
"That is quite enough, Cugel! I am not interested in your views. In exactly seven minutes you are scheduled to sanitize the laundry."
Halfway through the afternoon Master Soldinck, of the firm Soldinck and Mercantides, arrived at Flutic. Cugel conducted him to Twango's work-room, then busied himself nearby while Soldinck and Twango discussed the missing scales.
As before, Soldinck asserted that the scales had never truly been given into his custody, and on these grounds demanded a full refund of his payment.
Twango indignantly rejected the proposal. "It is a perplexing affair," he admitted. "In the future we shall use iron-clad formalities."
"All very well, but at this moment I am concerned not with the future but with the past. Where are my missing scales?"
"I can only reiterate that you signed the receipt, made payment, and took them away in your wagon. This is indisputable! Weamish would so testify were he alive!"
"Weamish is dead and his testimony is worth nothing."
"The facts remain. If you wish to make good your loss, then the classical recourse remains to you: raise the price to your ultimate customer. He must bear the brunt."
"There, at least, is a constructive suggestion," said Soldinck. "I will take it up with Mercandides. In the meantime, we will soon be shipping a mixed cargo south aboard the Galante, and we hope to include a parcel of scales. Can you assemble another order of four cases, within a day or so?"
Twango tapped his chin with a plump forefinger. "I will have to work overtime sorting and indexing; still, using all my reserves, I believe that I can put up an order of four cases within a day or two."
"That will be satisfactory, and I will report as much to Mercantides."
Two days later Cugel placed a hundred and ten scales, for the most part 'ordinaries', before Twango where he sat at his oak table.
Twango stared in sheer amazement. "Where did you find these?"
"I seem to have plumbed the pocket from which Weamish took so many scales. These will no doubt balance my account."
Twango frowned down at the scales. "A moment while I look over the records ... . Cugel, I find that you still owe fifty-three terces. You spent quite heavily in the refectory and I show extra charges upon which you perhaps failed to reckon."
"Let me see the invoices ... . I can make nothing of these records."
"Some were prepared by Gark and Gookin. They are perhaps a trifle indistinct."
Cugel threw down the invoices in disgust. ''I insist upon a careful, exact and legible account!"
Twango spoke through compressed lips. "Your attitude, Cugel, is both brash and cynical. I am not favorably impressed."
"Let us change the subject," said Cugel. "When next do you expect to see Master Soldinck?"
"Sometime in the near future. Why do you ask?"
"I am curious as to his commercial methods. For instance, what would he charge Iucounu for a truly notable 'special', such as the 'Sky-break Spatterlight'?"
Twango said heavily: "I doubt if Master Soldinck would release this information. What, may I ask, is the basis for your interest?"
"No great matter. During one of our discussions, Weamish theorized that Soldinck might well prefer to buy expensive 'specials' direct from the diver, thus relieving you of considerable detail work."
For a moment Twango moved his lips without being able to produce words. At last he said: "The idea is inept, in all its phases. Master Soldinck would reject any and all scales of such dubious antecedents. The single authorized dealer is myself, and my seal alone guarantees authenticity. Each scale must be accurately identified and correctly indexed."
"And the invoices to your staff: they are also accurate and correctly indexed? Or, from sheer idle curiosity, shall I put the question to Master Soldinck?"
Twango angrily took up Cugel's account once again. "Naturally, there may be small errors, in one or another direction. They tend to balance out in the end ... . Yes, I see an error here, where Gark misplaced a decimal point. I must counsel him to a greater precision. It is time you were serving tea to Yelleg and Malser. You must cure this slack behaviour! At Flutic we are brisk!"
Cugel sauntered out to the pond. The time was the middle afternoon of a day extraordinarily crisp, with peculiar black-purple clouds veiling the bloated red sun. A wind from the north creased the surface of the slime; Cugel shivered and pulled his cloak up around his neck.
The surface of the pond broke; Yelleg emerged and with crooked arms pulled himself ashore, to stand in a crouch, dripping ooze. He examined his gleanings but found only pebbles, which he discarded in disgust. Malser, on his hands and knees, clambered ashore and joined Yelleg; the two of them ran to the rest hut, only to emerge a momentlater in a fury. "Cugel! Where is our tea? The fire is cold ashes! Have you no mercy?"
Cugel strolled over to the hut, where both Yelleg and Malser advanced upon him in a threatening manner. Yelleg shook his massive fist in Cugel's face. "You have been remiss for the last time! Today we propose to beat you and throw you into the pond!"
"One moment," said Cugel. "Allow me to build a fire, as I myself am cold. Malser, start the tea, if you will."
Speechless with rage, the two divers stood back while Cugel kindled a fire. "Now then," said Cugel, "you will be happy to learn that I have dredged into a rich pocket of scales. I paid off my account and now Bilberd the gardener must serve the tea and build the fire."
Yelleg asked between clenched teeth: "Are you then resigning your post?"
"Not altogether. I will continue, for at least a brief period, in an advisory capacity."
"I am puzzled," said Malser. "How is it that you find so many scales with such little effort?"
Cugel smiled and shrugged. "Ability, and not a little luck."
"But mostly luck, eh? Just as Weamish had luck?"
"Ah, Weamish, poor fellow! He worked hard and long for his luck! Mine came more quickly. I have been fortunate!"
Yelleg spoke thoughtfully: "A curious succession of events! Four cases of scales disappeared. Then Weamish pays off his account. Then Gark and Gookin come with their hooks and Weamish jumps from the roof. Next, honest hard-working Cugel pays off his account, though he dredges but an hour a day."
"Curious indeed!" said Malser. "I wonder where the missing scales could be!"
"And I, no less!" said Yelleg.
Cugel spoke in mild rebuke: "Perhaps you two have time for wool-gathering, but I must troll for scales."
Cugel went to his scow and sieved several buckets of slime. Yelleg and Malser decided to work no more, each having gleaned three scales. After dressing, they stood by the edge of the pond watching Cugel, muttering together in low voices.
During the evening meal Yelleg and Malser continued their conversation, from time to time darting glances toward Cugel. Presently Yelleg struck his fist into the palm of his hand, as if he had been struck by a novel thought, which he immediately communicated to Malser. Then both nodded wisely and glanced again toward Cugel.
The next morning, while Cugel worked his sieve, Yelleg and Malsermarched out into the back garden. Each carried a lily which he laid upon Weamish's grave. Cugel watched intently from the side of his eye. Neither Malser nor Yelleg gave his own grave more than cursory attention: so little, in fact, that Malser, in backing away, fell into the excavation. Yelleg helped him up and the two went off about their work.
Cugel ran to the grave and peered down to the bottom. The dirt had broken away from the side wall and the corner of a case might possibly have been evident to a careful inspection.
Cugel pulled thoughtfully at his chin. The case was not conspicuous. Malser, mortified by his clumsy fall, in all probability had failed to notice it. This, at least, was a reasonable theory. Nevertheless, to move the scales might be judicious; he would do so at the first opportunity.
Taking the scow out upon the slime, Cugel filled the tub; then, returning to the shore, he sieved the muck, to discover a pair of 'ordinaries' in the sieve.
Twango summoned Cugel to the work-room. "Cugel, tomorrow we ship four cases of prime scales at precisely noon. Go to the carpenter shop and build four stout cases to proper specifications. Then clean the carrier, lubricate the wheels, and put it generally into tip-top shape; there must be no mishaps on this occasion."
"Have no fear," said Cugel. "We will do the job properly."
At noon Soldinck, with his companions Rincz and Jornulk, halted their wagon before Flutic. Cugel gave them a polite welcome and ushered them into the work-room.
Twango, somewhat nettled by Soldinck's scrutiny of floor, walls and ceiling, spoke crisply. "Gentlemen, on the table you will observe scales to the number of six hundred and twenty, both 'ordinary' and 'special', as specified on this invoice. We shall first inspect, verify and pack the 'specials'."
Soldinck pointed toward Gark and Gookin. "Not while those two subhuman imps stand by! I believe that in some way they cast a spell to befuddle not only poor Weamish but all the rest of us. Then they made free with the scales."
Cugel stated: "Soldinck's point seems valid. Gark, Gookin: begone! Go out and chase frogs from the garden!"
Twango protested: "That is foolishly and unnecessarily harsh! Still, if you must have it so, Gark and Gookin will oblige us by departing."
With red-eyed glares toward Cugel, Gark and Gookin darted from the room.
Twango now counted out the 'special' scales, while Soldinck checked them against an invoice and Cugel packed them one by one into the case under the vigilant scrutiny of Rincz and Jornulk. Then, in the same manner, the 'ordinaries' were packed. Cugel, watched closely by all, fitted covers to the cases, secured them well, and placed them on the carrier.
"Now," said Cugel, "since from this point to the wagon I will be prime custodian of the scales, I must insist that, while all witness, I seal the cases with wax, into which I inscribe my special mark. By this means I and every one else must be assured that the cases we pack and load here arrive securely at the wagon."
"A wise precaution," said Twango. "We will all witness the process."
Cugel sealed the boxes, made his mark into the hardening wax, then strapped the cases to the carrier. He explained: "We must take care lest a vibration or an unforeseen jar dislodge one of the cases, to the possible damage of the contents."
"Right, Cugel! Are we now prepared?"
"Quite so. Rincz and Jornulk, you will go first, taking care that the way is without hindrance. Soldinck, you will precede the carrier by five paces. I will push the carrier and Twango will follow five paces to the rear. In absolute security we shall thereby bring the scales to the wagon."
"Very good," said Soldinck. "So it shall be. Rincz, Jornulk! You will go first, using all alertness!"
The procession departed the work-room and passed through a dark corridor fifteen yards long, pausing only long enough for Cugel to call ahead to Soldinck: "Is all clear?"
"All is clear," came back Soldinck's reassurance. "You may come forward!"
Without further delay Cugel rolled the carrier out to the wagon. "Notice all! The cases are delivered to the wagon in the number of four, each sealed with my seal. Soldinck, I hereby transfer custody of these valuables to you. I will now apply more wax, upon which you will stamp your own mark ... . Very good; my part of the business is done."
Twango congratulated Cugel. "And done well, Cugel! All was proper and efficient. The carrier looked neat and orderly with its fine coat of varnish and the neat apron installed by Weamish. Now then,Soldinck, if you will render me the receipt and my payment in full, the transaction will be complete."
Soldinck, still in a somewhat surly mood, gave over the receipt and counted out terces to the stipulated amount; then, with Rincz and Jornulk, he drove his wagon back to Saskervoy.
Cugel meanwhile wheeled the carrier to the shop. He inverted the top surface on its secret pivot, to bring the four cases into view. He removed the lids, lifted out the packets, put the broken cases into the fire, and poured the scales into a sack.
A flicker of motion caught his attention. Cugel peered sideways and glimpsed a smart red cap disappearing from view at the window.
Cugel stood motionless for ten seconds, then he moved with haste. He ran outside, but saw neither Gark nor Gookin, nor yet Yelleg nor Malser who presumably were diving in the pond.
Returning into the shop, Cugel took the sack of scales and ran fleet-footed to that hovel inhabited by Bilberd the half-witted gardener. Under a pile of rubbish in the corner of the room he hid the sack, then ran back to the shop. Into another sack he poured an assortment of nails, studs, nuts, bolts and assorted trifles of hardware, and replaced this sack on the shelf. Then, after stirring the fire around the burning cases, he busied himself varnishing the upper surface of the carrier.
Three minutes later Twango arrived with Gark and Gookin at his heels, the latter carrying long-handled man-hooks.
Cugel held up his hand. "Careful, Twango! The varnish is wet!"
Twango called out in a nasal voice: "Cugel, let us have no evasion! Where are the scales?"
"'Scales'? Why do you want them now?"
"Cugel, the scales, if you please!"
Cugel shrugged. "As you like." He brought down a tray. "I have had quite a decent morning. Six 'ordinaries' and a fine 'special'! Notice this extraordinary specimen, if you will!"
"Yes, that is a 'Malar Astrangal', which fits over the elbow part of the third arm. It is an exceedingly fine specimen. Where are the others, which, so I understand, are numbered in the hundreds?"
Cugel looked at him in amazement. "Where have you heard such an extraordinary fantasy?"
"That is a matter of no consequence! Show me the scales or I must ask Gark and Gookin to find them!"
"Do so, by all means," said Cugel with dignity. "But first let me protect my property." He placed the six 'ordinaries' and the 'Malar Astrangal' in his pouch. At this moment, Gark, hopping up on the bench, gave a rasping croak of triumph and pulled down the sackCugel had so recently placed there. "This is the sack! It is heavy with scales!"
Twango poured out the contents of the sack. "A few minutes ago," said Cugel, "I looked through this sack for a clevis to fit upon the carrier. Gark perhaps mistook these objects for scales." Cugel went to the door. "I will leave you to your search."
The time was now approaching the hour when Yelleg and Malser ordinarily took their tea. Cugel looked into the shed, but the fire was dead and the divers were nowhere to be seen.
Good enough, thought Cugel. Now was the time to remove from his grave those scales originally filched by Weamish.
He went to the back of the garden, where, in the shade of the myrhadian tree he had buried Weamish and dug his own grave.
No unwelcome observers were in evidence. Cugel started to jump down into his grave, but stopped short, deterred by the sight of four broken and empty cases at the bottom of the hole.
Cugel returned to the manse and went to the refectory where he found Bilberd the gardener.
"I am looking for Yelleg and Malser," said Cugel. "Have you seen them recently?"
Bilberd simpered and blinked. "Indeed I have, about two hours ago, when they departed for Saskervoy. They said that they were done diving for scales."
"That is a surprise," said Cugel through a constricted throat.
"True," said Bilberd. "Still, one must make an occasional change, otherwise he risks stagnation. I have gardened at Flutic for twenty-three years and I am starting to lose interest in the job. It is time that I myself considered a new career, perhaps in fashion design, despite the financial risks."
"An excellent idea!" said Cugel. "Were I a wealthy man, I would instantly advance to you the necessary capital!"
"I appreciate the offer!" said Bilberd warmly. "You are a generous man, Cugel!"
The gong sounded, signaling visitors. Cugel started to respond, then settled once more into his seat: let Gark or Gookin or Twango himself answer the door.
The gong sounded, again and again, and finally Cugel, from sheer vexation, went to answer the summons.
At the door stood Soldinck, with Rincz and Jornulk. Soldinck's face was grim. "Where is Twango? I wish to see him at once."
"It might be better if you returned tomorrow," said Cugel. "Twango is taking his afternoon rest."
"No matter! Rouse him out, in double-quick time! The matter is urgent!"
"I doubt if he will wish to see you today. He tells me that his fatigue is extreme."
"What?" roared Soldinck. "He should be dancing for joy! After all, he took my good terces and gave me cases of dried mud in exchange!"
"Impossible," said Cugel. "The precautions were exact."
"Your theories are of no interest to me," declared Soldinck. "Take me to Twango at once!"
"He is unavailable for any but important matters. I wish you a cordial good-day." Cugel started to close the door, but Soldinck set up an outcry, and now Twango himself appeared on the scene. He asked: "What is the reason for this savage uproar? Cugel, you know how sensitive I am to noise!"
"Just so," said Cugel, "but Master Soldinck seems intent upon a demonstration."
Twango turned to Soldinck. "What is the difficulty? We have finished our business for the day."
Cugel did not await Soldinck's reply. As Bilberd had remarked, the time had come for a change. He had lost a goodly number of scales to the dishonesty of Yelleg and Malser, but as many more awaited him in Bilberd's hut, with which he must be content.
Cugel hastened through the manse. He looked into the refectory, where Gark and Gookin worked at the preparation of the evening meal.
Very good, thought Cugel, in fact, excellent! Now he need only avoid Bilberd, take the sack of scales and be away ... . He went out into the garden, but Bilberd was not at his work.
Cugel went to Bilberd's hut and put his head through the door. "Bilberd?"
There was no response. A shaft of red light slanting through the door illuminated Bilberd's pallet in full detail. By the diffused light, Cugel saw that the hut was empty.
Cugel glanced over his shoulder, entered the hut and went to the corner where he had hidden the sack.
The rubbish had been disarranged. The sack was gone.
From the manse came the sound of voices. Twango called: "Cugel! Where are you? Come at once!"
Quick and silent as a wraith, Cugel slipped from Bilberd's hut and took cover in a nearby juniper copse. Sidling from shadow to shadow, he circled the manse and came out upon the road. He looked right and left, then, discovering no threat, set off on long loping strides to thewest. Through the forest and over the hill marched Cugel, and presently arrived at Saskervoy.
Some days later, while strolling the esplanade,1 Cugel chanced to approach that ancient tavern known as 'The Iron Cockatrice'. As he drew near, the door opened and two men lurched into the street: one massive, with yellow curls and a heavy jaw; the other lean, with gaunt cheeks, black hair and a hooked nose. Both wore costly garments, with double-tiered hats, red satin sashes and boots of fine leather.
Cugel, looking once, then a second time, recognized Yelleg and Malser. Each had enjoyed at least a bottle of wine and possibly two. Yelleg sang a ballad of the sea and Malser sang 'Tirra la lirra, we are off to the land where the daisies grow!" in refrain. Preoccupied with the exact rhythm of their music, they brushed past Cugel, looking neither right nor left, and went off along the esplanade toward another tavern, 'The Star of the North'.
Cugel started to follow, then jumped back at the rumble of approaching wheels. A fine carriage, drawn by a pair of high-stepping perchers, swerved in front of him and rolled off along the esplanade. The driver wore a black velvet suit with silver epaulettes, and a large hat with a curling black plume; beside him sat a buxom lady in an orange gown. Only with difficulty could Cugel identify the driver as Bilberd, former gardener at Flutic. Cugel muttered sourly under his breath: "Bilberd's new career, which I generously offered to finance, has cost me rather more than I expected."
Early the next morning Cugel left Saskervoy by the east road. He crossed over the hills and came down upon upon Shanglestone Strand.
Nearby, the eccentric towers of Flutic rose into the morning sunlight, sharp against the northern murk.
Cugel approached the manse by a devious route, keeping to the cover of shrubs and hedges, pausing often to listen. He heard nothing; a desolate mood hung in the air.
Cautiously Cugel circled the manse. The pond came into view. Out in the middle Twango sat in the iron scow, shoulders hunched and neck pulled down. As Cugel watched, Twango hauled in a rope; up from the depths came Gark with a small bucket of slime, which Twango emptied into the tub.
Twango returned the bucket to Gark who made a chattering soundand dived again into the depths. Twango pulled on a second rope to bring up Gookin with another bucket.
Cugel retreated to the dark blue mitre-bush. He dug down and, using a folded cloth to protect his hand, retrieved the 'Pectoral Sky-break Spatterlight'.
Cugel went to take a final survey of the pond. The tub was full. Gark and Gookin, two small figures caked with slime, sat at either end of the scow, while Twango heaved at the overhead rope. Cugel watched a moment, then turned and went his way back to Saskervoy.
CUGEL'S SAGA. Copyright © 1983 by Jack Vance