Authors: L. Neil Smith
Table of Contents
THEIR MAJESTIES’ BUCKETEERS
L. NEIL SMITH
An Imprint of Arc Manor
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Their Majesties’ Bucketeers
1981 by L. Neil Smith.
All rights reserved. This book may not be copied or reproduced, in whole or in part, by any means, electronic, mechanical or otherwise without written permission from the publisher except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.
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ISBN (Digital Edition): 978-1-61242-149-0
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Pasje, uai nrytu wesoh lixxu lenoh oj-niiwaav!
—The Book of Pah
I: Ungentlelamly Remonstrations
, Extraordinary Inquirer for Their Majesties’ Bucketeers, trod down the well-worn steps of North Hedgerow Precinct in a visible state of agitation, practically onto the cobbled pavement of Kevod Lane before he realized that he was being followed.
I could scarcely blame him in this: there seemed little he was aware of at the moment save that unbearable frustration that our immediate superior’s reactionism never failed to inspire in him. To be blandly informed that Bucketeers attired as civilians might very well find apprehending criminals easier, but that such an expedient was
, and on this principle unthinkable…
The fur stood out upon Mav’s carapace in ill-tempered spikes as he commenced inhaling deeply after the fashion of his
masters—another “foreign affectation” disapproved of by Battalion Chief Waad Hifk
—a subtle but efficacious aid to a gentlelam’s composure. Breath whistled quietly in turn through the nostril on either side of the bases of his limbs, which appendages he alternately tensed and relaxed, regaining mastery of his public disposition.
In my esteem, Mav was the very specimen of mature Fodduan lamviinhood, tall, symmetrical, ordinarily of restrained and courteous demeanor befitting the station to which he had been born, and of a tawny-golden coloration typical of the Imperial race, shading to a darker hue at the extremities. A manicured and shapely three-fingered hand equipped each of the arms that served him with inherent grace whether they supported his weight upon the ground, or—in exercise of that singular ability which, with certain other attributes, distinguishes us from speechless beasts—were held erect, displaying a strength that often came as a surprise to the resisting felon (and to many an enamored female and surmale, if one credited the least of Department innuendo. In my presence he was invariably the model of moral exactitude, although whether this was wholly to be desired I could never then quite decide).
Where each triad of arms joined together, a crisp measure of carefully selected shirt cuff set off the lower edge of his aristocratically tailored uniform sleeve. The limbs above these joints (one would assume) were proportionately well-turned—although in one of them a lingering indisposition from a savage arrow taken during brief and, rumor has it, notorious service in some colonial war, occasioned traces of a limp that he artfully concealed by carrying his duty weapon strapped there, rather than regulation-style from the underside of his carapace.
This contrivance, of seasoned ajot-leather, I knew to be one of Mav’s several minor inventions, some of which—despite the most strenuous of official resistance—were in everyday use in the Department. It is difficult for even the highest public servant to argue against apparatus that regularly saves lives.
Manifesting satisfaction, the detective now examined the quiescent texture of his fur as I, the accidental witness to this ordeal of self-containment,
Offe Woom, a surmale paracauterist and Mav’s admirer and friend, clattered out through the high glass-paned triangular Precinct doors to join him.
“Another altercation with our governor?” My own pelt must have betrayed a riffle of amused sympathy. As a determinedly independent representative of my gender, I confess that Mav’s exertions on behalf of Departmental progress seemed strikingly to parallel my own. “I daresay we could hear the two of you through solid stone in the infirmary below!”
My companion cast a sardonic eye my way as he watched with the remaining pair for a break in the afternoon traffic rattling busily between him and his apparent objective, the Hose & Springbow. “My dear Mymy, do not compound impertinence with prevarication. Will you deny it was
silhouette I saw just now, outside the frosted glass of Tis’s office door?” With this he stepped across the curb but was forced to retreat as a heavy waggon bearing Myfin’s Celebrated Remedy—
for ague and the dampening of carapace and limbs
—rumbled into his path, drawn by an ill-matched trine of watun.
I would not dignify this accusation of his, not wishing our conversation to digress. “Dear Mav, more patience upon your part might have an agreeable effect on our employer’s health. It’s been less than a year since you persuaded him—”
“Persuaded? He produced from a pocket on his jacket-leg a small embellished silver tube and tiny matching flask of the aromatic distillates especially blended for him in the King’s High Road. A drop or two fell into an aperture at the end of the cylinder; he waited as the volatile saturated its felt lining, then thrust it into one nostril. “Our venerable Battalion Chief had virtually to be compelled at pistol-point to concede that scientific criminal investigation might someday become practicable, provided I were to begin—”
you have, Inquirer sir, with considerable enhancement of your own professional status in the bargain. No longer is the estimable Mav obliged to pursue the common ruffian when a fellow Bucketeer sounds trumpet in some darkened alley. Nor does the
Mav march his appointed rounds at odd hours of the evening in every sort of disagreeable weather, and speaking of disagreeable”—I indicated his pipe; its fumes were causing me to blink—“that is a filthy habit; it will be the death of you, someday.”
“Not,” he replied evenly, “if I can get across this thrice-accursed street to entertain an even filthier one.” He took my instrument bag. “Coming, paracauterist?”
At last watun and waggons had consented to let us pass. We approached that familiar after-hours haunt, an establishment nicknamed, from affection and ancient usage, the Bucket & Truncheon. Mav swung the door aside to the saloon bar where the landlord greeted us, a surly expression in his hair.
“Here now, none of
Despite a natural trepidation, I looked through him icily: “Pray, innkeeper, is this not a
tavern?” Rhetorical to say the least; the scars and scorchings of a thousand city fires were plain upon the fellow’s body. His bristling exterior softened at my words to a sort of dull-witted perplexity.
“You know it is, Missur Mymy, why do you ask when you know it’s so?” He wiped a grimy trio of hands on the apron hanging between his legs.
“Well, good Tamet,” I declared, pointing to the insignia upon my cap and sleeves, “am
not a Bucketeer, then?” We’d been through this disheartening charade uncountable times, yet it was always difficult accosting the old veteran thus.
The male habitués were staring at me as I stood partway through the door, half my walking hands still resting on the pavement outside. Each fiber on my carapace stirred with ill-concealed embarrassment and dawning anger.
“Aye, Mymy, but you’re also a—”
“A paracauterist? Why, I see several: there’s Nrydmou over there, and hallo, Zihu!” I refrained from pointing out that these were, of course, the only
paracauterists left in North Hedgerow Precinct.
“But, Missur, I can’t…I mean, in twenty-seven nonades, there ain’t
been permitted no—”
, Tamet? That same three octaries ago, there weren’t any
Bucketeers, either. But there, as you might put it, ‘plain as th’ jaws on yer head,’ sit Dapod and Em, juicing it up just like regular firefighters. How is it, fellows?” Our somewhat less progressive colleagues ignored my greeting.
Mav’s coat was fairly curling with amusement now, though I believe it was not at
discomfiture. “Mymy, come with me. I’ll sit with you in the public bar.” He took my arm to lead me out the door where we walked another few paces along the street.
The public, or “family,” portion of the Hose & Springbow was furnished much as the saloon that had always been forbidden me, in dark and ancient seasoned cactus plank and with yellow sand spread generously upon the footworn flagging. Streaks and splotches among the rafters attested to the age of the place, where tallow first and gaslamps afterward had left their sooty signatures. Now there were strung the glassy envelopes of electric candles, affixed to the copper mountings and reflectors of their predecessors. This illuminatory revolution, accomplished in my grandparents’ day, had done much in Mathas to reduce the relative importance of the firefighting branch of our Service. As yet, the bureaucratic structure of its organization had not been appropriately adjusted.
Tamet met us again, addressing my companion: “Awrr, it just ain’t
you should take yer current with th’ ladies an’ th’ lurries, Cap’n.” Giving signs of unbearable spiritual pain, he added, “C’mon back th’ saloon an’ have a jolter on th’ house.”
Observing Mav, I let my other eyes wander briefly over the “ladies” present, reflecting how scandalized my family might feel had they known what I was seeing. The neighborhood of the Precinct was the intersection of three distinctly different districts, and, as such, had never quite settled on a character of its own. There was fashionable and wealthy North Hedgerow, where my parents made their home and I, myself, overcoming their most strenuous objections, had managed to establish independent lodgings—admittedly selected and well supervised by my mother. There was The City, where respectable businesses flourished by day, among them my surfather’s professional offices for the practice of medicine. And there was the Kiiden, where theatergoers and other, less benign varieties of sensation-seekers populated nighttime streets.
Among its other functions, the Hose & Springbow served as gathering place and refuge for these poor disreputables Tamet had referred to, as they prepared themselves to ply their degrading evening’s trade. Except in size and manner of dress, their surmale partners (and partners there must be, for perversions of unnatural number or combination found even less official tolerance than our Service customarily accords to common “decent”…oh, for Trine’s sake,
it—prostitution) were hardly distinguishable in the dispirited manner with which they built up a sort of inebriated indifference to what they must endure this night for the sake of keeping spirit and carapace together.
There were, of course, also my fellow surmale paracauterists, who reacted appropriately as to their individual natures to the spectacle I had thus far created of myself. Poadpo looked toward the timbered wall, pretending not to notice. Zoddu winked and rippled rher pelt conspiratorially; though rhe lacked the courage to initiate these things rherself, rhe nevertheless admired my temerity and, on occasion, had told me so in private.
“Am I to understand,” demanded my self-appointed but nonetheless welcome protector, “that you’ll willingly serve my surmale companion in the saloon, breaking lifetimes of tradition, rather than have me, a male, take his tickle in the public bar?” There was another quality that I admired in Mav: he was never loath to identify the hearts of a sticky situation forthrightly—in the loudest of syllables, if necessary.
The barlam nodded miserable assent, wringing his apron.
“Then set us up, good lam, and be quick!” He flourished a gleaming newly minted silver crown before the fellow’s unhappy eyes as the three of us watched females and surmales, Bucketeers and trollops alike, get up and cross over to the saloon bar. “Or would you have us take our custom elsewhere?”
I sat uncomfortably upon my sand-filled cushion in the booth that Mav had chosen, six walking hands dangling several finger-widths above the floor, the underside of my carapace rocking slightly despite the elbows I had planted firmly on the rough-hewn tabletop. On one account Tamet had been the soul of verity: this part of his establishment had never been intended for the smaller sexes.
“My dear Inquirer,” I admonished, our conversation having returned to the subject of Tis, “there are three sides to every argument…”
“Assuredly,” he responded, “the right side, the wrong side, and the
side.” He let his furry covering crinkle a bit, indicating a humorous sentiment behind the barb. Then he lifted a hand to signal the proprietor for another.
His third, as I recall it.
His pelt assumed a pensive, almost bitter expression. “Why is it that there are those whose singular duty and delight it is to practice nothing but obstruction for obstruction’s sake?”
I replied, “While there are those—in the opinion of my father, principally the young—who embrace novelty for no other reason than that it is novelty.” I could quote the old gentlelam nearly word for word, for he had said this often enough, usually about me.
“I thank you, dear Mymy, for the implicit compliment, but I am scarcely any longer young—and bashing shells against the likes of Tis has aged me further than my years alone account for. You know, I’ll wager our nominal superior was
youthful in the way your father complains of, but fearful and suspicious of change perhaps before he even knew what gender he would be. How it would surprise him that this attitude makes me more often sad than angry with him.”