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Authors: D. M. Cornish

Lamplighter (5 page)

BOOK: Lamplighter
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Feeling uncomfortable and unnecessary, Rossamünd hugged his arms against the searching chill.
Balding branches rubbed together with whispering creaks. Dry twigs rattled.
Exposed and neglected, Rossamünd looked to the calendars. Head bowed and shy, the young prentice fished about his salumanticum and brought out more bellpomash, offering it to Dolours with a nervous cough, “I thought you might need this, m’lady. I’m sorry, I have nothing more appropriate for a fever—no febrifuges or soothing steams . . .”
She remained silent for a breath, looking to Rossamünd’s hands, then to his face. There was an unreal calmness in her gaze. Her spoors, those white lines that went vertically from her hairline across both eyes to her jaw, showed clearly in the night. They made her look serious, dangerous. Like Europe, she possessed a remote, almost casual deadliness.
Rossamünd began to regret his boldness.
“Thank you, young lampsman.” The bane nodded graciously. “It was foolish of me to have left both ill and without the chemistry for even a simple vigorant. Dispense away.”
Putting down his fodicar, Rossamünd set about his task, also giving out lordia—to restore their humours, which, as he had read in a book from Winstermill’s small library, was essential after times of great stress and exertion. He had bought this from a hedgeman, a wandering script-grinder who had visited Winstermill not more than a month ago.
Each restorative was gratefully received.
Such a concentrated collection of teratologists Rossamünd had never seen before.While he dispensed, he sneaked beady, fascinated looks at their odd costumes.The calendars hid their well-proofed silken bossocks beneath mantles patterned in blue, orange and white. Dolours kept warm beneath a hackle of fur. She wore fleece-lined, buff-covered oversleeves called manchins tied to her shoulders with ribbons. Rossamünd could not help staring at her wings. Although they looked real—outstretched and ready to fly—he knew they were simply ornaments.
Each of the calendars’ feet was shod with quiet-shoes: flat-heeled, soft-soled, coming to a pronounced, flattened point at the toe. The strange, ornate hats upon the calendars’ heads—known as dandicombs—varied, however. The pistoleer—whose name, he quickly learned, was Charllette—wore a broad thrice-high; the maimed dancer had been wearing a tight, vertical bundle of black ribbon and many, many hair-tines—these were being removed even as Rossamünd watched. Threnody, evidently sulking, wore her own hair, with no hat or other flamboyant head covering. She, too, had a spoor: a thin arrow pointing up from her left brow—the mark of a wit. Rossamünd had read that wits were always bald; he wondered how it was that this one was not.
With sad, taciturn direction from Dolours, the lampsmen discovered the body of a sixth calendar in the mess of the carriage.The lampsmen placed it on the side of the road, near the lamp and away from the corpses of bogles. Beside it they laid the fallen dancer, covering both in their patterned mantles and returning to their vitriolic mutterings and the search for luggage. If there was one thing Rossamünd had learned well, it was that lamplighters liked to gripe.
The three calendars stood by the bodies, their heads bowed.
The lampsmen stopped their labors and watched, staying very much apart from the women as they grieved. Thinking it polite, Rossamünd removed himself too, sitting on the side of the road. Sad in sympathy, he thought he could hear Threnody softly weeping as Dolours whispered almost inaudibly, “Fare thee well, kind Pannette. Rest thee easy, dear Idesloe. The dove fold you in her down-ed wings . . .” More was said, special funeral potives lit to ward off scavenging bogles and hushed laments sung while the lampsmen stared.The sad task over, the calendars retired to the edges of the lamplight.
Ritual done, the lampsmen recovered the last of the dunnage. “They expect her to join us!” Assimus piped up as he and Puttinger wrestled a trunk to the small collection of the calendars’ belongings. “They expect us to let a girl join! Have you ever, ever heard of such a thing, Putt? I don’t give a fig what the Marshal might do: I’ve never heard of such a thing in all my time!”
Threnody, obviously overhearing, fixed them with an attempt at a withering eye.
Rossamünd was caught by it, and though they were not his words, he blushed and shuffled awkward feet.
“You there,” Threnody called, soft yet sour, “the little ledgermain. I am in need of evander, if you have this.”
Rossamünd hesitated. Evander he did not have—only gromwell, a cheap substitute courtesy of the miserliness of the clerks—though it did in a pinch. He said as much, and the young calendar snorted in mild disgust.
It will do, she said, and held out a hand to receive the restorative.
He stepped over and gave to her a drab brown flasket marked with a Γρ to signify gromwell. Threnody took it, looked at it with a splenic expression, and then quaffed it in one brash gulp.
“That is all” was all she said as thanks, and with that said ignored him completely.
Rossamünd was not impressed. She could not have been more than a year or two his senior.
“I reckon she’s taken a liking to ye, Master Come-lately,” Assimus chuckled archly.
Rossamünd turned his attention to nothing in particular and fixed it there. This kind of jesting was, he had learned over the last two months, part of the lamplighter way.
“Not that you really want to get tangled with a calendar, boyo,”Assimus continued quietly, unexpectedly willing to share his manifold experiences. “They’re always getting in our road on the road, if ye get me, always interfering with their lofty machinations. Still,” he said, patting the young prentice on the back, “since they’ve taken such a shine on ye, it seems it’s fallen to thee to be their minder. Handsomely done, lad, a noble thing you’ve set to, sparing us the burden. Handsomely done!”
“But I thought it was the duty of all lamplighters to do the noble thing,” Rossamünd returned seriously.
Assimus looked awkward in turn, then collected himself. “What do ye know of noble things, lantern-stick?” the lighter said churlishly. “What dangers have ye had to test yer thew? See what I’ve seen and then see if ye’re so quick to judgment. Just keep to yer watching, and yer ignorant twitterings to yeself!”
Feeling chastened and foolish, Rossamünd did as he was told.
The cloudless night grew colder. The women whispered to each other in a foreign tongue, yet said little to their three guardians.The calendar pistoleer attended to the hurts of her half-chewed and mercifully unconscious sister while Threnody brooded and Dolours sat suffering her fever. Heavy pistolas hanging ready at her hips, Charllette picked slowly through the fallen nickers, frequently looking out into the darkling woods wanly lit by a rising moon. As she went from corpse to corpse, the pistoleer would crouch for a time, poking at the beast, then rise and move to the next, slyly stowing things in her stout satchel each time. Puzzled, Rossamünd watched her from the corner of his gaze, trying not to look open and curious. At one of the dead monsters he saw her stopper an odd-shaped vial, one he recognized—a bruicle it was called—used by physicians and surgeons to hold humours and by teratologists to hold . . .
monster blood
He was curious to see the manner by which it was done—his peregrinat, the waterproof almanac given him by Fransitart—was only vague on the subject. The epitome of failed nonchalance, the young prentice sauntered over to a beast and stared at it, looking for signs of Charllette’s gruesome work. The horn-ed nicker’s eyes were wide and staring, as vacantly black and blank and empty of energy as they had been wild, coal-fire orange when it lived. Rossamünd looked into them sadly. Such an impressive, stalwart creature, yet he could still sense its malign nature: definitely foe, never friend. And oh, the stink of it! Like a piggery, the jakes and an unmucked manger in one.
“These are ugly, festering articles.” The hushed voice of Lampsman Assimus marveling to his right startled Rossamünd. “Look’ee here!” The lampsman poked at the heavy body with his fodicar. “This is one we hit—see the holes. Every bullet has its billet. I see those saucy coneys have taken their fill already, but we have claim on this ’un’s ichor too. Draw some, Putt—we can get Drawk to punct us when we’re off watch tomorrow.”
Puttinger shook his head grimly as he drew forth a wicked-looking utensil.
A sprither, Rossamünd realized. It was a tube of steel bent into an S-shape with a needle point on one end and a short, flexible straw made of gut protruding from the other.
“They’ll claim the kill, no doubting,” Puttinger said in his thick Gott accent as he bent and stabbed the point of the sprither into a hole made by a musket ball. “But we had our hands in it!” He sucked on the straw briefly and squeezed it several times till the thick, dark brown blood—the ichor—of the bogle trickled out. Pinching the straw to stem the flow, he unstoppered a bruicle of his own and let the ichor drain into it. From what Rossamund understood, now that the ichor was contained outside the body, it was called cruor—spilled blood.
Rossamünd watched with rapt disgust. Then his own blood went cold.
They shan’t mark me!
To be puncted with a cruorpunxis was foul to the young prentice ever since he had witnessed the end of the innocent Misbegotten Schrewd by Europe’s hand. Not that he would
express this aversion: an admission of such a thing would surely brand him a sedorner. With the lamplighters, as in the cities, monster-lovers were always hanged. More than once Rossamünd had seen a man hanged in Right Tree Angle, the square in what was once his part of Boschenberg. He had never relished the spectacle as many others appeared to do, with their jostling and jeering and hoots of derision. “Traitor! Traitor! Who’s going to caress the nickers now?” Such were the cries as the poor convict’s face went purple-black and his tongue swelled out.
Rossamünd shuddered at the vivid recollection.
“No blood-marking for thee, little lantern-stick,” Puttinger said gravely, as if he were reading Rossamünd’s thoughts. “Though thy chums did, thee did not have thy hand in this killing.”
Rossamünd quickly returned to the present. “Aye, Lampsman.” Oh yes, he was very glad to be excluded from the kill—even if these nickers were not so innocent.
Assimus stepped away and cautiously kicked at what was left of a horse. He looked over to the calendars with a snort. “Horses indeed! Much smarter choice, oxen, for traveling in the night,” he said to his fellow lighters, just loud enough for the calendars to hear. Only Threnody paid him any mind—an ineffectual glare. “Not nearly as toothsome and attracting to the nickers as a team of half-a-dozen glossy nags.” He scratched his head. “Thing is, Putt, how is it so many of the hugger-muggers have found themselves this far west?”
Puttinger nodded gravely. “Our brothers is pushed too hard out east and are letting the schmuttlingers through. It is like the people is saying: the Marshal is struggling.”
“The Lamplighter-Marshal will have it in hand, and no fear,” said Assimus. “We just do as he directs and we’ll win through. It’s just like that dark time back in—when was it? Ye remember, Putt? When all those nasty spindly things came out from the Gluepot and with them schrewds in hordes and we went out to help . . . It was ’cause of the Marshal we got ’em then, and we still have ’im now and we’ll get ’em now—easy as kiss me hand!”
“Yes.” Puttinger did not sound convinced. He stowed the sprither and stepped away, looking suspiciously into the menacing shadows.
Rossamünd had read of nickers and bogles—“huggermuggers” Assimus had called them—gathering in numbers in determined assault on some remote or ailing community. In days-now-gone maraudes of monsters would ravage everyman heartlands, even into the parishes and right up to the walls of a city. Such terrors were so rare now as to be mythical, yet it was still the greatest fear of the subjects of the Empire.Within every bosom dwelt the vague dread of cities overrun with murderous, civilization-ending bogles, of gashing pain and effusions of blood, of a world without humankind. Without vigilance, ancient history could too easily become present calamity. It was this dread that made Imperial citizens so determinedly vengeful whenever a sedorner was ferreted out from among them.
Yet here on the edge of the Idlewild, even Rossamünd had heard the growing rumors of monsters setting on people in the lands about with alarming regularity; read of it in the few periodical pamphlets he had managed to buy from the paper hawkers who drifted through the fortress. At first he had thought it just a part of rural life, but if weary veterans of the sinew of Lampsmen Assimus and Puttinger were troubled, then Rossamünd was moved to be doubly so. He was surely glad to be in the company of a bane, even a weary one.
In the carriage debris a part-crushed hamper had been rescued. By the light of the great-lamp, as the calendars and the lamplighters reluctantly gathered close for safety, Charllette rummaged among the cracked, dribbling pots and smashed, smeared parcels, sharing any unspoiled vittles she found. The pistoleer called Rossamünd’s portion “a nice bit of coty gaute.” He examined it skeptically: it looked like pie filled with odd-smelling chunks.
“It’s quail pasty, lamp boy,” Threnody said testily. “Just eat it.”
Rossamünd did so and, even though it was congealed-cold, it tasted rather good.
In the encroaching dusk, green Maudlin rose over the eastern hills and showed how long the night had been. In due time the lamplighter-sergeant returned with a guard of four sturdy haubardiers of the Wellnigh House watch leading a dray pulled by a nervous ox. The animal was draped in a flanchardt, a covering blanket of proofed hessian. It was turned about and took the exhausted, injured or unconscious calendars, their two dead sisters, and their damaged effects back to Wellnigh House. It was agreed better to return to the cothouse rather than go on to Winstermill; better to get indoors as soon as possible while the night still lingered, and with it the threat of more monsters. The proper treatment of wounds would have to wait until the morrow.
BOOK: Lamplighter
7.08Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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