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Authors: James Kennedy

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BOOK: The Order of Odd-Fish
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“Dithering?” said Jo.

“You know—fiddling about, puttering, loafing. The Order of Odd-Fish has a long and distinguished history of dithering. Sir Oliver is the world’s foremost authority.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t say that!” protested Sir Oliver.

“He wrote a six-hundred-thousand-page dissertation on dithering,” said Aunt Lily. “
Puttering, Muddling, and Mucking About: An Inquiry into Idleness.
Quite well known in the field.”

“I make no claims,” said Sir Oliver.

“Don’t be so modest! Your work was years ahead of its time.”

“Is it worth reading?” said Jo.

“Nobody’s ever read it,” whispered Aunt Lily.

“Please!” Sir Oliver smiled.

“Honestly, he can’t take a compliment,” said Aunt Lily.

The cockroaches swooped in, snatched away the soup bowls, and served plates heaping with a gooey stew. It was spicy and slimy, and after a few cautious bites, Jo decided she liked it.

“Sir Oliver edits the Appendix,” said Aunt Lily. “He makes sure that everything in it is properly dubious.”

“I don’t understand,” said Jo. “Your Appendix is
supposed
to be unreliable?”

“Or useless,” said Sir Oliver happily. “Unreliable
or
useless. We also print information that is out of date or contradictory. Though, I must stress, we never publish anything misleading.”

“Deliberately misleading,” said Aunt Lily.

“Good point, yes. All the information in the Appendix is true, as far as we know. Which, er, isn’t too far, actually, sometimes.”

Jo said, “Isn’t it stupid to have an unreliable reference book?”

All conversation stopped at once.

Every single knight put down his or her fork and knife, and glared at Jo.

Jo’s stomach dropped. “Sorry…I didn’t mean…”

A general harrumphing, and the knights went back to their dinners.

“Actually, Jo, there
is
a point to it,” explained Aunt Lily gently. “There are many things in this world that we know a little bit about, but not enough to say we
really
know. Things that are vague, or only half understood. Or known once and then forgotten, or once thought to be true, and now thought to be false, but maybe they’re really true, who knows? This stuff doesn’t fit into the encyclopedia. It’s too dubious. So we put it in our Appendix instead. Rumors, leads, myths, things that are maybe true, maybe not.”

A tiny man almost entirely covered in white whiskers peered over at Jo. “For instance,” he said, in a voice that sounded like a rapid series of hiccups, “my research is particularly dubious. Not to mention entirely useless. I study discredited metaphysics.”

Jo remembered. “Oh! Sir Oort Helmfozz, right? Sefino said you—”

The furry man was thunderstruck.

“She knows me,” he whispered. “She knows my work! She knows my
name
! Somebody cares! At long last…
somebody cares
!”

“Well—”

“It has never happened before,” said Sir Oort with astonished awe. “Nobody has ever said they cared about my research. Do you know how boring my research is?”

“I didn’t actually say—”

“How
tedious
metaphysics is?”

“But—”

“It is
spectacularly
tiresome,” crowed Sir Oort. “Some of my metaphysics positively
sparkles
with dullness. Oh yes! You have no idea. My life, year upon year of arcane drudgery—
aha!
I see that you, too, thirst for knowledge!”

“Not—”

“You want to learn more about my work. Don’t be shy, girl! I can tell!” Sir Oort tapped his glass with his fork, announcing to the table, “I shall tutor her every week!”

Aunt Lily said, “We wouldn’t dream of imposing—”

“Not at all, not at all! No, no, I won’t hear of it!” exclaimed Sir Oort. “It is obvious to me that this girl thirsts for knowledge of discredited metaphysics. I will not permit you, Dame Lily—oh no!—to stand in her way. Oh ho ho, oh no, oh no! I daresay it’s a dream come true for her. Yes—a dream come true,” he said, and went back to muttering into his yams.

“All due respect to Sir Oort, but discredited metaphysics isn’t all we study,” said Aunt Lily quickly. “Dame Isabel, for instance, studies unusual smells.”

“How do you do,” said a prim lady down the table.

Jo couldn’t help but smile. “Smells?”

Dame Isabel regarded Jo with supreme distaste. “Rest assured,” she said crushingly, “
you
have never smelled what I have smelled; and even if you had, you would scarcely understand what you were smelling.”

Jo gritted her teeth—she’d made another faux pas. But Aunt Lily briskly moved on. “We also have Sir Alasdair Coveney, who studies unlikely musical instruments.”

Sir Alasdair looked like a boiled sausage disguised as a person. His face was bulging but pinched, his pink skin flushed and wet with sweat. He had removed his turban because of the heat, and his head was completely hairless.

“What kind of instruments do you study?” said Jo politely. “I play the organ, actually.”

Sir Alasdair seemed not to hear her. He continued to eat his pork chop.

“So…do you play anything?”

No answer.

“Do you, um, like music?”

Nothing.

“Can you even hear me?”

Sir Alasdair nodded, tearing off another bite of pork chop.

“Then why don’t you answer me?” said Jo, exasperated. Then, under her breath: “You’re even ruder than that smells lady.”

Sir Alasdair’s eyes lit up. He paused over his pork chop. “Ah yes, the…
smells lady,
” he said slowly. “Or, as I prefer to call her,
my wife.

Jo reddened as Sir Alasdair dissolved into snuffling laughter.

Dame Isabel said stiffly, “Your squire will learn how to properly address a knight.”

“She will,” said Aunt Lily. “Though you’ve given her little reason to be polite.”

“I wasn’t aware I had to grovel to the great Dame Lily’s squire,” said Dame Isabel. “Apparently the laws don’t apply to Dame Lily’s squire. That’s no surprise. The laws don’t seem to apply to anything about Dame Lily.”

“Enough, Isabel,” said Sir Oliver, with as much authority as he could muster from within his absurd costume. “Don’t ruin the feast.”

The woman sitting on Jo’s left said, “Don’t mind the Coveneys, they’re insufferable. I was Lily’s squire once, too, and Alasdair and Isabel gave me just as hard a time. I’m Delia. Delia Delahanty.”

Dame Delia was a middle-aged black woman, angular and elegant, with short hair and rectangular glasses. She looked at Jo with amused kindness, and just when Jo had regained enough confidence to ask, “What do you study?” she interrupted herself with an “Oh!” as a brilliant gold-and-emerald feathered snake with dozens of wings slithered out of Dame Delia’s sleeve and stared at Jo.

“Absurd animals,” said Dame Delia, petting her snake absently. “Any living thing that’s extremely rare, extinct, mythical, or horribly deformed is of great interest to me. Don’t worry about Snoodles, he’s just curious. Back you go,” she said, waving her fingers, and the snake slithered back up into the folds of Dame Delia’s gown.

A meek voice from the other end of the table said, “Nobody’s asked me what
I
do.”

Jo didn’t feel at all comfortable about “Snoodles,” but asked anyway (even as she darted a glance back at Dame Delia’s sleeve), “Oh? What do you study?”

“I’m Dame Myra Uldermulder,” said the unseen knight. “I study improbable botany. That is, strange plants. But don’t mind me,” she said sadly. “Don’t mind me at all.”

“That actually sounds interesting,” said Jo. “What kinds of plants?”


I
study ludicrous weaponry,” interrupted Sir Festus.

“But Dame Myra—”

“I shall tell you about a certain sort of sword,” continued Sir Festus. “Commonly used three thousand seven hundred years ago, in the Fidbiglian Empire.
A sword made out of biscuits!

“Dame Myra was talking.”

“Never mind Dame Myra. These biscuit-swords were the only weapons allowed in the Fidbiglian Imperial Army. A bizarre palace intrigue had resulted in the coronation of the Imperial Chef!”

“But—”

“The swords were absolutely useless. The entire Fidbiglian army was defeated in the next war. Against the Glovians, no less!”

“Ah—”


The Glovians!
Can you believe it? And then the Glovian army ate the swords.”

“I see.”

“Very humiliating for the Fidbiglians.”

“Was it.”


Biscuit
-swords. Swords made out of
biscuits.
I don’t know what the chef was thinking,” said Sir Festus. “The Fidbiglians later drowned him in a kettle of his own custard.”

“Go ahead, ignore me,” sighed Dame Myra. “I’m used to it.”

Dinner was finished, and the cockroaches served everyone coffee and bowls of jelly-like cubes floating in blue cream. The cubes were cold, slippery, and tasted like sour apple; after eating a few, Jo felt unexpectedly light-headed. Some of the knights produced pipes and began to smoke.

“Now that we’re all snug with our coffees and pipes,” said Sir Festus, “could Dame Lily tell us just how she found her way back from exile? Didn’t you have all your memories removed?”

“Yes, that was part of the mayor’s sentence,” said Aunt Lily. “So we’d never find our way back to Eldritch City.”

“And then you were dumped back in your old home in…California, was it?”

“That’s right.”

“Never heard of the place. Thoroughly ridiculous name, it sounds made up. But, moving on. How did you get back to Eldritch City?”

Aunt Lily raised her eyebrows to Sir Oliver. He nodded. Then she stood up, and from a carton, dumped onto the table the remains of the black box.

A long silence broke into confused arguing and exclamations of dismay.

Dame Isabel said, “If this is your idea of a joke—”

“It is not a joke,” said Sir Oliver gravely.

“I don’t believe it,” gasped Sir Oort.

“Where—
where
did you get that?” said Dame Isabel.

“It fell out of the sky into my backyard,” said Aunt Lily.

“That’s your explanation?”

“Isabel, I don’t know how it happened. I don’t know who is responsible,” said Aunt Lily. “But I do know that, yes, it is what you think it is.”

“What’s going on?” said Daphne. “Everyone seems to know what that thing is but me.”

“Hear, hear!” said Albert Blatch-Budgins.

“What is it?” said Nora, whipping out a notebook and pencil.

Sir Festus stood up and spread his arms. “Perhaps it would be best if
I
explained the history of this unique mechanism, which has, by strange chance, found a path back into our hands.”

Nobody objected, but Jo did notice some squires roll their eyes.

“Twenty years ago, an experimental project was undertaken by the Order of Odd-Fish,” intoned Sir Festus. “A formidable enterprise, its commencement fraught with controversy, its progress beset by hazards, its final outcome potentially catastrophic.”

“Okay, okay,” said Daphne.

“Our story begins, as many good stories do, with
me,
” said Sir Festus. “While pursuing other research, I happened across some curious documents. Ancient documents, from shadowy sources. Documents of a disturbing nature. Terrifying documents. Shaken, I put the documents away and attempted to return to my research. But those documents…those documents! They would not let me rest!”

“In the end, did you bravely face the documents?” said Phil.

“I did,” said Sir Festus. “For the documents contained blueprints for a device too intriguing for the Odd-Fish to ignore. After much debate, we voted to build the device. But the vote was close. Some among us felt we were toying with forces beyond our control. They argued the principles underlying this device were too bizarre to be accepted. They claimed—”

“I just said it was a silly idea,” said Sir Alasdair.

“Same here,” said Dame Delia. “I just thought it wouldn’t work.”

“What wouldn’t work?” said Jo. “What was a silly idea?”

“Dame Lily supervised the construction of the device,” said Sir Festus. “But everyone’s assistance was required for this complex project, a project that had to be undertaken in strictest secrecy. For if any outsiders found out about what we were building—the deep and terrible forces we were wrestling with, the ancient energies we were unleashing, unbeknownst to the city, in our unassuming lodge on its quiet street—the same street where children would run about and play—the children! what about the children!—the mayor would have disbanded the Order of Odd-Fish without trial.” Sir Festus quaked with the drama of it all. “The children, the children,” he said again. It had a nice ring. He decided to run with it. “The children of Eldritch City. What manner of world were we passing on to them? Would it be a world in which the mechanical marvel we were constructing would exist not as a dark, fevered fantasy—
but as a grim reality
?”

“The grim reality is that we still don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Phil Snurr.

“I will tell you,” said Sir Festus. “We built…
an Inconvenience.

There was a long silence.

“An, um, what?” said Jo.

“It is a device that causes inconveniences,” said Sir Festus.

“I told you it was a silly idea,” said Sir Alasdair.

“I don’t understand,” said Jo.

“Nobody truly understands,” said Sir Festus. “Not even those of us who built it. Nevertheless, let me try to explain what we do know. Suppose I wanted to annoy someone.”

“Surely you don’t need a machine for that?” said Jo.

“I mean seriously annoy them. Listen. First you steal a small item that belongs to the person. Then you lock it inside the Inconvenience. Then you get rid of the Inconvenience—toss it out the window, throw it in the garbage, feed it to a walrus, it doesn’t matter how. For only if the Inconvenience is properly
lost
can it start operating—that is, the Inconvenience causes a sequence of coincidences and unlikely events to occur to that person, making their life terribly inconvenient.”

Ian said, “Like they fall and break their neck?”

BOOK: The Order of Odd-Fish
12.28Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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