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Authors: D. M. Cornish

Lamplighter (7 page)

BOOK: Lamplighter
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The prentice-watch messed on the usual farrats and small beer (never as good as that served at the Harefoot Dig—always far too watery). Tomorrow’s breakfast at the manse would be no better—dark pong bread swilled down with saloop, a drink of sassafras and sugar boiled in milk. The morning after that it would be farrats once more, then pong the next, then farrats, over and over.
Breakfast wolfed down, they paraded out in the yard of the northern keep before the sun had even peeped. Now they must douse all the lanterns back to Winstermill and be in time for limes, the morning interval between first morning instructions and second. This was where the prentices still at Winstermill were formed up to await the return of the lantern-watch, each given lime-laced pints of small beer to fend off ill-health. Ready for this returning and looking forward to limes, the boys stood shivering in the glow of bright seltzer lamps, the morning showing as a cold halo in a low and murky sky.This was the time of day figured safest, when night monsters had found their beds once more and daytime prowlers were still waking.
Surly and overtired, Assimus, Bellicos and Puttinger poked the boys into correct dressing with rough tugs and prods of their fodicars. Grindrod called them to attention and marched them out the gates. Back to Winstermill they went, to a little rest before resuming the solemn routines of their prenticing.
Back to Winstermill, that is, except for Rossamünd. He had been left behind as a courtesy from the lamplighter-sergeant to rouse the calendars and accompany them to the manse. Returning from the foreyard, he passed Mister Bolt, the night-clerk and uhrsprechman, sitting in the north keep guardroom behind a small dirty stool that served as his table, and asked him the time of day.
Groggy, smelling of claret and squinting with lack of sleep, Mister Bolt peered at Rossamünd. “
Quota hora est,
he asks!” the night-clerk said, taking out his heavy fob. “What time is it indeed?” He glared at its cryptic face beadily. “Why, lantern-stick, it’s a little before the half hour of five-o’the-clock on this cruel chill’s morning, and the bad half of a good hour till the drummer wakes the rest and I get to me fleabag” (by which he meant his bed).
By their own instruction the calendars were not to be troubled for another hour. At last Rossamünd had a moment of his own, without press or crowd or the impel of orders—a precious-rare commodity, he had learned, in a lamplighter’s life. Secreting himself in a dim corner beneath the stairs that went up to the gallery, he hoped to remain inconspicuous, perhaps to read a little of his new pamphlet and avoid being discovered and set to some odious task.
He failed.
As the drums rataplanned again to wake the rest of the cothouse for another day, the house-major, on his way down to breakfast, spied Rossamünd. “You there! Lantern-stick! The one I spoke with last night,” the officer barked. “Feed the dogs. Their meat is in the kitchen.”
“Aye, sir,” the young prentice said with sinking wind. It was properly the duty of the house-watch to feed the dogs. The house-major must have known that though Rossamünd had been left behind, he was still part of the lantern-watch. He had rarely ever met a dog of any sort—they were not allowed in Madam Opera’s—and any time he had, the meeting had not been comfortable. Shaken, the young prentice nevertheless obeyed without demur, asking directions of a kitchen hand.
“They’re in the yard of the south keep,” a rough-shaven kitchen hand explained, handing Rossamünd a rotund pot of dog vittles. “Mind the weight!”
Wrapping his arms about the pot’s wide girth, Rossamünd did not find the burden a trouble and, arms full of reeking offcuts, made his way to the southern keep of Wellnigh. He wrestled the great pot past the house-watchmen, a half quarto of haubardiers pacing about the edges of the road who jostled him as he tried to get around them.
“Move your ashes, scrub!”
Tottering across the Pettiwiggin, he thumped with his elbow at the small sally port in the wall of the south keep yard. No one answered, and he kept thumping until one of the haubardiers came over and, with a sardonic grin, unlocked and opened the port to let him through. In the small, high-walled space beyond were the great kennels, built up against the keep’s base, barred with stout iron founded in stone. This was the cage for the dogs, five Greater Derehunds—enormous creatures with spotted flanks and slobbering jowls—that waited hungrily. Such dogs were kept at many cothouses and at Winstermill too, there to howl and yammer with great commotion if a nicker was ever near.
The Derehunds began an awful growling as soon as they saw Rossamünd, all five hunched and threatening, a terrible gurgling rattle in their throats, pointed ears flat along their pied necks.
“Hallo there,” Rossamünd tried, and waggled some stinking offal.
With a jerk one hound gave a savage bawling bark that sent the rest mad, leaping over each other, back and forth, crashing against the bars, baying like all wretchedness was loose.
Rossamünd leaped backward, scrambling and slipping on grimed cobbles.
Officers, lighters and haubardiers rushed from all points, some shouting, some soothing the dogs in vain, many demanding, “What did ye do?”
Some minor officer—a lieutenant—grabbed Rossamünd hard under the arm and pulled him away. “What are you practicing at?”
“Nothing, sir!” the young prentice quailed. “I . . . I just tried to feed them, as ordered.”
“He’s all right, sir,” offered a lighter from the day-watch. “He was a part of that confustication last night.”
“Ah, cunning beasts,” said a haubardier in obvious admiration of the hounds, “they can still tell the stink of the monsters on ye from yester eve.”
“Well, get him out of here,” demanded the lieutenant. “Find him another task.”
“You had best get back to them harum-scarum ladies, lad,” the lighter said quietly. “Quick now, before the dogs get wilder.”
Rossamünd gratefully left the pot and went back to the northern keep, up the stairs, over the gallery to the temporary lodgings of the calendars.
Threnody greeted his polite good morning with little more than a cold stare and silence. Dolours looked as poorly as she had on the night previous.
“May I offer you a draught mixed with bellpomash, m’lady?” Rossamünd inquired.
“You most certainly may,” she returned gratefully.
Rossamünd went quickly to the kitchen and asked permission of the cook to prepare the restorative. The best he could do was to mix it with saloop and add some lordia too, but Dolours did not fuss. She drank it down and returned the bowl to him with a smile.
“My thanks to you. We will be ready presently.”
He waited a goodly while by the door as the calendars prepared to leave.
Charllette the pistoleer was to stay behind and take a post-lentum back east by way of the Roughmarch, the threwdish gap through the Tumblesloe Heap. She would return to the Lady Vey and the stronghold of the calendars, bearing with her dispatches and the bodies of the two dead. Dolours,Threnody and the wounded dancer Pandomë, who lay unconscious on a bier with her face and head entirely bandaged, were to go west to Winstermill. Despite the bellpomash brew, the bane still showed the strain of her malady and Rossamünd asked after her health once more.
“Why, I thank you, young lighter,” Dolours replied. “Truly I would not have set out so ill had not the need been pressing. You understand the life of service, I am sure.”
Rossamünd nodded wholeheartedly. “I shall recommend you to our physician when we return, m’lady. They say there’s nothing he can’t mend.”
Dolours smiled and Threnody frowned.
When all was ready the small party set out in pouring rain—
fighting weather,
Europe would have called it. For a moment Rossamünd wondered where the terrible fulgar might be. Was she still in Sinster—that city famous for its transmogrifying surgeons, the makers of lahzars—to be mended after the near-fatal spasming of her artificial fulgar’s organs? Would she soon return, as she had promised, to see how he was getting on? A quiet ache set in his gall: despite his abhorrence of her trade—at her indiscriminate killing—he was actually missing the teratologist. After all, she had rescued him from that scurrilous rogue Poundinch.
Instead of an ox dray, the calendars traveled easy in a small covered curricle drawn by two sturdy donkeys. These were led by a laconic leer Rossamünd had never properly met but knew from the milling of rumor and reputation to be Mister Clement. The fellow confirmed this with a sour introduction to the calendars, giving them all a dour look with his weird yellow and olive-drab eyes, as if the task was a great inconvenience. Before the leer put on his sthenicon Rossamünd marveled at his wrong-colored eyes, so different from Sebastipole’s. For Clement was a laggard, like Licurius, better able to spy things hidden in shadows and darkness and nooks than a falseman, but less capable of spotting lies. His biologue in place, the leer took them out on the road. He talked little, instead bending all his energy to searching ahead and aside for the evidences of a monster.
After his experience at the strangling hands of Licurius, Rossamünd walked a little uneasily beside Clement. Exposed to the foul weather and equally silent, the young prentice was nevertheless grateful to have the leer’s senses to forewarn them. That at least was a genuine comfort.
The calendars themselves also proved ill-disposed to speak, and the whole journey from cothouse to manse was accomplished in near silence.
They traveled back through the Briarywood, back through its hinting threwd, passing the scene of last night’s violence. Despite a wet day, stains of spilled blood still showed black in the dirt of the road. Under a heavy guard of haubardiers, with the chortling morning chorus of birds making light of the grisly work, a toiling fatigue party from Wellnigh House’s day-watch struggled to build and light a pyre of the fallen nickers and dead horses. The bodies of slain monsters needed to be disposed of promptly, for it was held that, left to rot, a nicker’s corpse always attracted more of the living kind.
Walking through the Harrowmath, Rossamund started and stared at every rustle in the high grass. The rain increased and his thrice-high filled with water, which spilled inconveniently whenever he moved his head.
With each lamp they passed he felt a steady urgency to wind out the bloom, even though it was day. He had been in lessons (Readings on Our Mandate and Matter with Mister Humbert) in which the prentices were belabored with the notion that the Conduit Vermis was the spine about which many towns and villages grew; that the road allowed these towns to be knit as more than just remote settlements; that it was for the lamplighters to toil and keep the Wormway clear; that if they did not, then the whole of civilization might fail and fall to rapid ruin. To light the lamps meant that the kingdoms of humankind could sleep well that night. Every lamp they passed was a memorial to him of this heavy responsibility. He sighed, letting his fodicar drag in the soupy slick that filmed the hard-packed clay of the revered road.
“Lift your lantern-crook, boy!” came the rough command of the leer, and the young prentice obeyed with an unthinking start. Shrugging his shoulders against the wet, Rossamünd pushed on. Between the silence of the calendars, the taciturn concentration of Clement, and the broad, brooding Harrowmath, he lamented how different life might be as a vinegaroon or—he wondered for a moment—even as Europe’s factotum.
among the carriages more commonly used to traverse the highroads and byroads of the Half-Continent, post-lentums deliver mail and taxi people (for a fare) from one post to another. They are manned by a lenterman or driver, an escort (usually armed and armored) known as a side-armsman or cock robin (if wearing a red weskit of Imperial Service) or prussian (if wearing a deep blue weskit of private employment) and one or two backsteppers—either splasher boys or post runners or amblers—sitting upon the seats at the back of the roof.When traveling dangerous stretches, another backstepper may join—a quarter-topman possessing a firelock and a keen gaze—for extra protection. This crew is collectively referred to as lentermen. Po’lent is the common term for these vehicles, an abbreviated derivation of po(st) lent(um).
BOOK: Lamplighter
12.11Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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